I’m sure you’ve heard of these three words, but what do they mean if they’re used interchangeably?  Read on to learn the key differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks.

Collaboration

At its most basic, collaboration just means working together.  In non-profit lingo, collaborations generally include things like information sharing, program coordination, and joint planning (source 1).  Two or more organizations get together and have a limited interaction, achieve a mutually beneficial goal like jointly planning an event or learning from each other.

Key characteristics of collaborations:

  • a few organizations
  • limited in time
  • not necessarily formalized in any way
  • may be around a shared, specified goal

Can you think of any collaborations you’ve recently been part of or heard of?

coalition
Usually formed for a specific, common goal, a coalition involves a group of organizations that get together, share responsibilities, and may disband after achieving their goal.  Coalitions exist to bring broader attention and action to a large goal that affects many stakeholders.  For example, if a coalition formed to pass or prevent legislation, it would have more leverage than an individual organization, because it can reach more people, access greater resources, and bring different perspectives to the strategy.  Often, coalitions are short-lived and end after successfully accomplishing its goal.

Key characteristics of coalitions and alliances:

  • multiple organizations
  • usually limited in time
  • usually have a specific goal
  • varying levels of formalization
  • may have a specified convener or facilitator

What goal, larger than your organization’s mission statement, would be best achieved by a coalition?

network

A network is a set of organizations with diverse relationships, strengths of relationships and trust between them. One way to think about it is like an ecosystem – there are different types of actors, but they work together – some more closely than others.  Collaborations and coalitions happen within larger networks.  As June Holley writes, in her Network Weaver Handbook:
“networks are different than organizations: there is no boss who can fire members if they don’t do their job, there are no weekly staff meetings to ensure that communication and learning are taking place, and there are no teams or departments to organize the work and distribute funds.”

Key network characteristics:

  • multiple organizations,
  • no necessary convener,
  • evolve over time and persist beyond goal,
  • not necessarily formal or intentional, but can be,
  • may exist for specific goal, or for broader support function
Armed with the knowledge of the differences between collaborations, coalitions, and networks, what is a good next step for your organization to strengthen its relationships?  Will you choose a time-bound partnership, facilitate a group toward a common goal, or get to meeting and greeting new peers?
List of sources used:
1. La Piana Consulting, The Partnership Matrix
2. June Holley, Network Weaver Handbook
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