I spent 5 years working with 4 nonprofits on a collaborative technology project. Below I share the lessons we learned, the challenges and the benefits of having nonprofits collaborating on a technology project.
This was the project the developed the SafeChat Silicon Valley crisis counseling service. It involved four domestic violence service providers near San Jose, California. First came a feasibility study (VERY IMPORTANT!), done by myself and Organizational Development consultant Beth Schecter to determine if the organizations could work together and which project best suited the group. The organizations decided on creating the first collaborative online & mobile chat crisis counseling service in the United States. SafeChat has since successfully launched and is being used to support survivors of domestic and intimate partner violence. See my posting about the project: Digital Crisis Counseling – Technology Meets the Hotline
Lessons we learned from this multi-year technology effort:
Rising Tide – In this case, the “rising tide that lifts all boats” was engaging with technology. To participate in the project and use the technology tools it required, all of the agencies needed to upgrade their hardware and software as well as increase their skills with technology. By being engaged with the project and hearing what others were learning and doing, each agency reported increased confidence and skill in the use of technology as the project progressed.
Timing – Naturally, meetings take longer as there are many more voices at the table and factors to consider when working collaboratively. Each organization has its unique cultural norms, history, assets, weaknesses, programs, people, politics, leadership, networks, etc. For our project this meant meeting for several hours every two weeks. We used half of the meetings for full group discussions and half of it for small group work, to allow people dedicated time and space for working on the project that they might not otherwise have in their often hectic jobs.
Learning – Because we had everyone share what was working or not working for them, they each benefited from learning about others experience. The learning had not only to do with technology but with others aspects of collaboration, project work and relationships. People shared strategies for overcoming resistance from leadership or other staff. They share why a particular strategy or tactic did or did not work well for them. They learned how to deal with vendors and with website developers. They learned many new terms and phrases they didn’t know before. Being in community helped them share and gain knowledge in ways usually not possible in a cross-organizational way.
Capability Building – Having people do things they have never done before built their confidence and capabilities which also transferred into their organization. Skills and knowledge gained through being stretched in their project roles built stronger leaders, more confident project managers and better trainers. We included the whole group in discussions on software selection, hardware requirements, website development, online privacy, marketing and many other topics that allowed people to participate at their level and learn from discussions at the same time.
Resources – Having the assets of four organizations to draw on provides a larger pool of resources. This includes many types of resources from talents to skills to contacts to even physical assets. One was able to usually provide the meeting space, one was able to have their website design person give us some hours, one was able to have all of the printing done for marketing materials. Through contacts, they were featured on major market television news.
Impact – The organizations are now able to do together what they cannot do alone. No single one of these agencies could have accomplished alone what was done together. When working collaboratively, nonprofits can set their technology sights even higher than they can alone and have more of an impact on their sector.
Nonprofit technology collaborations can be successful if they are properly vetted, thoughtfully planned, funded appropriately and given the time required to create great things!