I don't think this is a very surprising revelation, but maybe that's because I've spent a fair amount of time professionally (both within the nonprofit world and outside of it) trying to get people to collaborate and have witnessed what a struggle it is to make it happen. People have all sorts of reasons for why collaboration doesn't happen, but in my experience it usually boils down to three issues: time, proprietary knowledge, and proprietary job duties.
Time is an easy one to understand: people are busy putting out day-to-day fires, finding funding, etc. There are only so many hours in the day, so something has to give and anything new, like a collaboration, is an easy ball to let drop. Not to mention, a person can always hope that someone else involved with the project will pick up the slack.
In my experience, proprietary knowledge is an underlying not oft talked about reason why many collaborations are never even considered. The truth is many organizations are worried that collaboration will lead to donors being siphoned off, because through a collaboration with another nonprofit the individual, corporation, or foundation will be introduced to another worthwhile group. My guess would be many groups don't talk about this concern openly because they don't want to be perceived as greedy and putting money before mission.
The final reason collaboration isn't pursued is that within each organization individuals contemplating collaboration can be concerned about their job status and protective of their job duties. This reason is much less likely to be mentioned than time since it can make the person saying it come across as petty, not a team player, etc. People--perhaps sometimes rightly, depending on finances and dysfunctional workplace dynamics--worry they will seem less special or important in a cooperative environment and that they will lose some of their power, because of the sharing dynamic.
No matter what the reason for not pursuing collaboration, the reality remains that this lack of cooperation can be detrimental to the bottom line as well as to the mission of many organizations. For a variety of reasons collaborations are beneficial:
- Many foundations are eager to fund applications that involve two or more nonprofits
- There are cost savings to be had in sharing space, administrative staff, etc. as well as in bulk purchasing
- Whether it's "many hands make light work" or "two is better than one" these adages often ring true
- Several nonprofits working together makes their work seem more significant and thus gain the attention of the press, government leaders, donors, etc.
- Working with others exposes a group to new ideas and ways of thinking that can broaden their horizons, deepen their understanding of issues, and help them see new solutions
My supposition is the way forward involves open, honest communication, which, if the self-help sections of bookstores are any indication, is a struggle for many people and thus the institutions they represent. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean it can't be done. Perhaps keeping in mind the words of our 26th president, Theodore Roosevelt, would help as we seek to make these changes and take on new tasks:
“Nothing in the world is worth having or worth doing unless it means effort, pain, difficulty… I have never in my life envied a human being who led an easy life. I have envied a great many people who led difficult lives and led them well.”