Competition Between Collaborative Partners
This activity encourages participants to talk about the tricky issue of competition. Competition between partnering organizations can lead to a loss of focus on the goals or even to the disintegration of collaboration. When opportunities arise that may change the course of a partnership, transparency and open communication must be maintained to prevent animosity and the possible dissolution of the collaboration.
Read the dilemma and respond to the following questions.
Melanie works for YouthConnect, a nonprofit organization that helps prepare underserved youth for college and careers. They were leading an initiative, Heads Up, to help high school students connect with colleges. This initiative involved several other partner organizations, with YouthConnect at the center. The partner organizations were located all over the country and all had an interest in helping high school students who may not otherwise have the opportunity to connect with universities. While all the organizations were working together, clear terms outlying the work as a formal collaboration were never established.
A few years into this initiative, an opportunity arose for non-profits to write a proposal for a large grant, serving as an intermediary in a new initiative that would scale up the high school-college work being done. Without informing the other partner organizations working in the initial initiative, Melanie applied on behalf of YouthConnect to serve as the intermediary. She did so without informing others as she knew it would be a competitive grant. She soon realized many of the partner organizations that had also been working on Heads Up also applied for the grant. During the application process, several other partner organizations contacted YouthConnect asking them if they wanted to partner on writing a grant for the funding. Melanie explains:
So, I had to manage these phone calls, where people were calling around and saying, “Well, will you partner with us?” And we were saying, well, we don’t think we want to. And finally we had to have a few phone calls in which we said, “Look, folks, we knew this moment would come; we’re both collaborators and competitors, so let’s just do this in the most cordial way we can.” And I still don’t know if they put their proposals in. We put ours in without any partner.
In the end, YouthConnect was offered the grant and coinciding role of intermediary, ending their partnerships with the other schools involved in Heads Up.
Follow-Up Questions (to discuss together):
1. What would you do in Melanie’s place? Would you tell your partners you were applying for the grant? Ask if anyone else was?
2. What are some helpful resources, strategies, and skills to employ in order to resolve this situation? Do any of these supports exist?
3. Was competition inevitable in this case? Were there viable alternatives to dissolving the collaboration?
General Questions to Consider as Potential Collaborators or Active Collaborators:
1. What plans are in place to accommodate a change in the course of work (by one or both organizations involved)?
2. Should transparency be the norm in collaboration, even if it is not in the best interest of one of the organizations?
3. When is it better to work individually, rather than in partnership with others?