By Cherilyn Horning and Laurie E. Paarlberg
Partnerships between United Ways and community foundations are not a new phenomenon. United Ways and community foundations have long worked together to meet community needs in many communities across the U.S.
These partnerships were particularly vital during COVID-19 when local United Ways and community foundations often worked together to coordinate a variety of relief efforts, including joint fundraising, service coordination, and information and referral. Despite the importance of such cooperative efforts, United Ways and community foundations face increasing competition in their local community for donors, volunteers, and staff.
Understanding how local organizations balance cooperative behavior in competitive environments, what the management literature describes as coopetitive behavior, can help strengthen collaborative efforts in local communities.
For the past two years, a team of scholars and students from the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy, the O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs (IUPUI), and Ohio State University have explored how United Ways and community foundations navigate “coopetitive” relationships in their local communities. The research sheds light on how these complex relationships are developed and sustained.
In late 2019, the research team surveyed United Ways and community foundations across the U.S. to understand how they perceive their relationships and their respective United Way/community foundation counterpart. In 2020, the team studied eight communities in which local United Ways and community foundations were actively engaged in partnerships to learn how these relationships are managed and what factors support cooperative action.
The study continued throughout 2020 and early 2021 while the world responded to the impact of the pandemic, which provided unexpected opportunities to see how these established partnerships reacted and adjusted to the impact of a crisis that affected their communities.
Three key findings emerged from the survey:
First, United Ways and community foundations overwhelmingly describe their relationships in positive terms. When asked on a November 2019 survey to describe their relationship to the UW or community foundation in the community, 47 percent described their relationship in only positive terms.
However, an equal number described their relationship using both cooperative terms and competitive terms. Expressing concerns about funding declines and sustaining organizational capacity, feelings of competition were also evident. Local United Ways and community foundations experience both competitive pressures and positive attitudes towards their local relationships.
And, finally, while relationships were viewed as positive, only 27 percent of the local organizations described their respective UW/CF as a partner.
A complicated relationship
Our survey suggested a paradox. While most organizations have positive attitudes toward their local counterparts, they do not always translate into cooperative action. To learn more about how local organizations support cooperative action, the research team studied communities in which local organizations were forging deep partnerships, despite competitive pressures. Our research took us to eight communities across the United States.
We found that these partnerships emerged out of a defining moment when the community faced an issue in which they realized that “partnership” was the only way forward. The partnerships took many forms, including information sharing, shared offices and staff, unitary governance structure, joint funding initiatives, and collaboration in formal community-wide collective impact initiatives.
Despite the diversity in the forms of partnership, the case studies identified common factors that contributed to strong and effective partnerships in such competitive environments. We learned that strong community partnerships are multi-faceted, complex, and develop over time due to deliberate individual, organizational, and community-wide action.
Organizational partnerships are embedded in community-serving relationships between leaders. Although not surprising, strong interpersonal relationships enable effective organizational partnerships.
One respondent indicated the level of importance they place on these relationships by saying, “…the quality of your relationships determines your success in everything.” Another one said, “build deeper relationships with people. Deep, caring, meaningful relationships with people, and they will come to the table again and again.” Leaders who built partnerships had already established relationships with other leaders respected and trusted by others in the community.
However, it wasn’t just that cooperative leaders were great people but rather that cooperative leaders took actions that made them great partners. Cooperative leaders “lacked ego” and shared a commitment to making decisions that benefited the community. Positive relationships among leaders were reinforced and supported with staff and board members through actions like joint committees and participation in community activities. Building and caring for relationships reduced the uncertainty of working with others.
Organizations build on their strengths to establish niches in their community. Although organization leaders were not oblivious to competition in their communities, organizations’ decisions to act cooperatively instead of competitively were intentional. Cooperative organizations focused on the bigger picture benefits of partnership.
Shared commitments to strengthening the local community through philanthropy allowed organizations to see how they complemented each other. By working in partnership, they found that they could create synergies and have a larger impact than they would if working alone. “Because the partnership was built … it’s become this vehicle to do things we never envisioned when we started putting it together.”
Rather than denying that competition exists, we found that cooperative United Ways and community foundations made deliberate decisions at various points in their organizational history to identify and negotiate the specific role that they would play.
Sometimes, that decision was made based on a niche that the other community organization already occupied. In other partnerships, these roles were decided based on the traditional funding or engagement role that the United Way or community foundation had historically played.
In some cases, there was an intentional decision made between the two organizations about who was better equipped or interested in addressing the identified community challenge. Establishing niches reduced the uncertainty over which organization was doing what and clarified expectations. The image below describes the variations and consistencies found across the eight communities related to focus, roles, funding, and impact across time.
Cooperative organizations are embedded in communities that invest in shared leadership.
While some may say that cooperation is “in the water” in their local community, we found that cooperation in local communities emerged from long-term community commitments to building shared leadership.
Cooperative organizations were located in communities in which community leaders, across sectors, had made intentional efforts to encourage and sustain collaboration in the community. Collaboration investments included a community commitment to formal and informal mentoring and willingness to communicate shared norms that “working together” was expected of all leaders.
Regular community meetings—such as monthly roundtables—that were not mandated by contracts or funding agreements, often served as safe spaces for information sharing, mentoring, and the development of shared values and visions.
Relationship building is difficult and some communities were able to invest in facilitators from outside the community who were able to help leaders build a stronger framework for effective partnership. Community investments created a safe space for leaders to interact, deepening partnerships and creating shared norms that partnership was valued in their community.
One respondent said, “It really isn’t about United Way or community foundation. It’s about this ability to come together as a community and focus on prevention with people from every sector: faith-based, entertainment, public government, the business sector … we all got together and agreed to figure out why or how do we work together so that we can actually start seeing some change.”
And then COVID-19
The team conducted additional interviews in 2021 to look at partnerships between United Ways and community foundations during the COVID-19 pandemic. We revisited many of our original eight communities and conducted interviews in six more communities.
In the early days of the pandemic, some United Ways and community foundations were in communication daily; sharing information, engaging in joint fundraising for relief and recovery efforts, convening other leaders across the sectors, facilitating the distribution of PPE supplies, and supporting public health efforts around mask and vaccination efforts.
These interviews supported much of the information gathered before and during the pandemic about the individual, organization and community factors that support strong relationships. The communities where these partnerships were intact pre-pandemic were poised and ready to respond in support of their community as the health and economic impact of COVID-19 became a reality.
However, as emergency relief efforts wound down, local United Way and community foundation leaders were already asking how do they rekindle the energy and passion for collaboration that emerged during COVID-19 around the existing community, such as early childhood education, health disparities, and inclusive workforce development? As one leader pondered, “what did we learn? What comes next?”
The full report contains more about the individual, organizational and community factors that helped build and maintain relationships between United Ways and community foundations.
Special thanks to the research team: Dr. Megan LePere Schloop (Ohio State University), Jin Ai (doctoral student, Lilly Family School of Philanthropy) and Lindsay Cat-Turner (master’s student, O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs, IUPUI).