Friday, February 18, 2011

A Case for Collaboration: From Cochabamba to Chicago

Last year for my senior thesis at Northwestern, I had the opportunity to research organizations working with street youth in Cochabamba, Bolivia. My fascination began when I studied abroad in 2008 for 4 months in Cochabamba and conducted ethnographic research with a group of youth who live and/or work on the city's streets. During that time, I also became aware of the vast number of organizations that exist offering support to these kids.

When I returned to Cochabamba a year later, I conducted interviews with the staff and directors of 8 organizations providing services to street youth. In these revealing conversations, it became apparent that many of the leaders of these organizations were unaware of what other nonprofits and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) were ALSO doing on behalf of these youth. The leader of one organization even explained to me that he viewed similar organizations as competitors, and even witnessed certain organizations arguing over the exclusive rights to photograph specific groups of kids to use in their brochures and websites to attract donors.

It became apparent that while these organizations shared similar goals, they did very little to help each other. At best, the organizations were operating in silos unaware of the work of similar organizations. At worst, organizations were wasting scarce resources by re-inventing the wheel or replicating programs that others had realized were ineffective. And it wasn't the fault of the organizations' leaders. In fact, they had really good reasons why collaboration between similar organizations wasn't practical.

In my research I identified a number of reasons why collaboration amongst non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and nonprofits is hugely challenging. I mention this now, because so much of what I learned about the environment of NGOs in Bolivia applies to what I am learning about the nonprofit atmosphere in Chicago. For issues ranging from immigration to health care to education, a variety of organizations exist with similar goals. Yet the amount that organizations are able to work together is limited.

Some of those barriers to collaboration include:

1. Lack of time/challenges in coordinating:
Organizations are focused on serving the populations they work with and are too strapped for time to reach out to leaders of other organizations.

2. Competition for resources:
Organizations doing similar work are competing for the same grants, funding sources, and donors. Thus just like McDonald's probably wouldn't be eager to collaborate with Burger King, organizations aren't always interested in collaborating with their "competitors" but instead see the nonprofit landscape as "survival of the fittest" organization.

3. Differing Priorities: Organizations often have different ideas about how to tackle their particular social issue. While some organizations are secular, others are religiously affiliated. While some provide handouts, others are adamantly opposed to this type of assistance. These all might be reasons why organizations don't want to associate with one another.

4. Lack of awareness: Organizations may not realize that other nonprofits doing similar work even exist or where they operate.

Tutor/Mentor Connection works as a catalyst trying to break down these barriers to collaboration for organizations focused on tutoring and mentoring (especially in the Chicago region).

Here are some of the ways we tackle each challenge and our logic for why collaboration is beneficial:

1.Lack of time/challenges in coordinating:
T/MC puts in the time to coordinate between organizations, reach out to other programs, and plan ways for leaders to convene and share best practices. T/MC also builds online resources so that leaders can easily and quickly access information T/MC has compiled from various organizations.

2. Competition for resources: Perhaps what we should be asking ourselves is not: "Is there competition for resources between organizations?" (the answer will always be YES), but instead: "Is there competition for CLIENTS for our services." Let me explain. If two organizations are competing to serve the same target population, then perhaps it doesn't make sense for both organizations to exist. BUT for big social issues like "helping urban youth succeed and graduate in Chicago" or "getting kids off the streets in Cochabamba" the demand for services is unfortunately, greater than the number of organizations able to supply help. So viewing other organizations as competitors really doesn't make sense.

The nonprofit industry is different from business because when there is more demand for our services, it generally costs us money. Each student in a program like Cabrini Connections, costs about $1,500 per year. Thus the more kids we help and the greater the demand for our services, the greater our expenses. It's important to keep this in mind when realizing that the survival of other organizations actually alleviates some of the expenses off of a single organization while working toward shared goals and allowing more people to be served.

However, it's overly simplistic to think that competition for funding is not a huge factor. Thus Tutor/Mentor Connection focuses on the ways that drawing resources or attention to one organization benefits us all. When one organization gets a grant that leads to media attention, tutoring and mentoring is spotlighted as a need in this city so all programs can harness this attention to get funding for their work. In addition, TMC works to organize events throughout the year that involve organizations throughout the city. By creating a "buzz" surrounding tutoring/mentoring, we all get attention (and hopefully resources).

3. Differing Priorities: Learning about other organizations' strategies can be helpful as programs share what works and what does not. Collaborating doesn't mean all organizations have to sign on to the same mission statement, and in fact, having different focuses may help get diversified donors.

4. Lack of Awareness:
T/MC has invested in creating a database of tutoring and mentoring programs in Chicago so that students, volunteers, donors, and programs are aware of what is out there. We also work to bring program leaders together via conferences, online forums, and email contact so that they are aware of the work other organizations are doing.

This type of collaborative action through a decentralized organization is not widely practiced within the non-profit sector. Not in Bolivia, and not in Chicago. Perhaps that is why we have always struggled to find the type of funding needed to operate Tutor/Mentor Connection.

But it seems that in the age of electronic collaboration, it is the direction where the nonprofit sector NEEDS to head. This infographic illustrates "the new culture of collaboration" and refers to some of the benefits of collaboration in the digital age.


  1. Karina this is a great way to tie the research you did while at NU with the work we're doing at the Tutor/Mentor Connection. Now we need to find ways to put this case in front of potential donors and benefactors. In this article I show the collaboration efforts of T/MC over past decade and compare the revenue we've had to what mentoring partnerships in other cities have, ranging from $300k to $1.5 million a year.

    Karina and I and other staff at CC, T/MC write blog article to share information and build greater public awareness and involvement in tutor/mentor programs. If you are reading this and know of potential investors/benefactors, please show this to them and invite them to become involved with our efforts.

  2. while being down there, did you visit argentina!?

  3. I did not, unfortunately, but Argentina is definitely near the very top of my travel wish-list. Have you been?

    Thanks for reading!!