Building Meaningful and Successful Nonprofit Collaboration

Editor’s Note

Encouraging collaboration within the food system transformation movement is one of Stray Dog Institute’s core priorities. We believe that collaboration builds the strength of our movement by helping advocates work together to increase effectiveness and by giving funders the knowledge to make more informed decisions.

This two-part blog series explores the process of organizing a collaborative gathering and facilitating the collaboration process. In the first post, we discussed how Stray Dog Institute promoted strategic dialogue among aligned nonprofits while collaboratively developing our philanthropic priorities with the help of nonprofit leaders, academics, and fellow funders. In this second post, we explore Stray Dog Institute’s lessons learned from facilitating collaborative working groups leading to the creation of collaborative work products.

Beginning in January 2020, Stray Dog Institute hosted three working groups on topics of high priority identified by leaders in the farmed animal and food systems movements. These topics were determined through the Roundtable on Animal Agribusiness Reform, which Stray Dog Institute co-convened with the Yale Law, Ethics, and Animals Program in 2019.

The three topics identified were (1) opposing so-called biogas—manure-to-energy schemes capturing waste from factory farms, (2) transforming our food system away from industrial animal operations and toward sustainable and ethical farms, and (3) reforming federally-sponsored “checkoff” programs geared toward the promotion of animal products such as meat and milk. Stray Dog Institute felt compelled to convene collaborative working groups around these issues due to their urgency, their high potential for positive change, and the interest they elicited from Roundtable participants.

In this post, we share our reflections and lessons learned from facilitating the working groups. We hope they will serve as a resource to help inform future nonprofit collaboration efforts, particularly those that involve funders. We have purposely generalized these lessons to be applicable to nonprofit collaboration broadly; however, the examples we use are specific to the working groups we convened. To protect the confidentiality of working group participants, we do not disclose member organizations.

Background on the Working Groups

As a funder, Stray Dog Institute learned from the movement leaders who participated in the Roundtable and selected topics for working groups. Stray Dog Institute then funded the groups, facilitated the working group discussions, and guided outputs. We sought to produce outputs that would deepen our and other funders’ understanding of these issues, advance collaboration across the movement, and incentivize more funding and attention to the topics.

The Factory Farm Gas Working Group and Farm Transformation Working Group began in January 2020. The Checkoff Working Group started in September 2020. Each working group brought together 4–10 subject matter experts from the farmed animal and food systems movements weekly for one year to delve into the issues and create strategic roadmaps that identify several possible pathways for change. The roadmaps aim to educate other funders about these critical issues and drive more attention and funding to strategic opportunities for enabling a better food system. The final strategic roadmaps can be viewed by request on our Reports page on the Stray Dog Institute website.

Stray Dog Institute’s Reflections and Lessons Learned

In this post, we share nine points of reflection for building successful nonprofit collaboration across three categories: preparing for collaborative efforts, the collaboration process, and creating collaborative work products.

Preparing for Collaborative Efforts

1. Compensate group members for their time and expertise. 

Many voices from across the philanthropic movement and elsewhere have long spoken about the importance of compensating experts for significant investments of their time, such as in the job application process. This is especially important when experts come from communities whose time and expertise have historically been, and are still, devalued. These communities include but are not limited to Black, Indigenous, AAPI, and Latine[i] communities, the disabled community, the LGBTQIA+[ii] community, and women, particularly women of color.

When extending invitations to join the working groups, Stray Dog Institute offered each participating organization a $30,000 collaboration grant to compensate their staff for their time spent engaging with the group in meetings and homework assignments. We expected that this time would average eight hours of work per week for a year. Throughout the working group process, members shared that the collaboration grants made it possible for them to participate and made their time and expertise feel valued. Furthermore, participants expressed that because the funding was contingent on their participation, and not on outputs or specific ideas, they felt freer to express their thoughts in front of the funder. While we realize that different funders have varying levels of resources they may be able to dedicate to collaborative processes, we strongly encourage funders to consider compensation at the outset of planning a collaborative endeavor with nonprofit partners.

2. Plan attendance with diversity and inclusion in mind.

As a funder in the process of moving our focus of work from a primarily animal protection lens to include a broader food system focus, Stray Dog Institute felt it was essential to include experts from outside of the farmed animal movement with focuses including labor, food systems, farmers, impacted communities, and more. Doing so helped us and all working group members gain a broader understanding of the issues.

While we remain grateful for our exceptionally dedicated and qualified working group membership, this is an instance where Stray Dog Institute learned a difficult lesson about composing effective collaborative groups as a funder with regard to our commitments to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Similar to our reflections on convening the Roundtable, Stray Dog Institute recognizes that we did not look far enough outside of our existing professional network when considering who might be a good fit for the working groups. Many of the participants were invited by Stray Dog Institute to the working groups following their participation in the Roundtable. Furthermore, a majority—though not all—of participants came from relatively large, white-led, well-funded organizations, and most of the individual participants were white. While the working groups did include some representation from impacted communities, we recognize that it was a disservice to ourselves, the working groups, and the movement that we did not center equity and inclusion—particularly racial equity—when deciding whom to invite. For future efforts where we engage with collaborative partners, Stray Dog Institute is committed to prioritizing the inclusion of Black, Indigenous, Latine, and AAPI-led groups and leaders, as well as lesser-resourced organizations and those representing impacted communities, at all stages of goal definition, agenda-setting, and group participation.

We are grateful to the working group members who pointed this out internally and considered ways to include perspectives not represented in their groups. These considerations were, by nature, imperfect; it would have been best had Stray Dog Institute been more inclusive from the outset. One action taken was to ask leaders at organizations representing impacted communities to give feedback on roadmap drafts and to credit their contributions in the final roadmaps. We are also grateful for Soul Fire Farm’s Uprooting Racism in the Food System Training and for Stray Dog’s internal efforts around diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice spurred by the national reckoning around racial justice in 2020. We hope that other funders can learn from our mistakes and consider from the very beginning of their planning process how their collaborations will integrate diversity and inclusion as core components in all stages.

3. Commit to following the energy.

As a funder committing to supporting and guiding a collaborative process, Stray Dog Institute learned that the working groups might choose to focus on or prioritize topics differently than we might have. While as a convener and facilitator, setting expectations around group process is helpful, we found that it was important not to dictate what the working groups did or how they thought about each issue. For successful nonprofit collaborations, particularly those convened by funders, we believe that funders must come to the table with real trust in the group and a willingness to let them lead. For example, the roadmaps produced by the working groups represented the viewpoints of the working groups, and not necessarily those of Stray Dog Institute As we discuss in Point 8 below, there is a power dynamic between funders and nonprofit allies that funders must recognize when playing a convening role among nonprofits. Part of addressing that power dynamic is recognizing where funders can step back and let the group lead..

The Collaboration Process

4. Foster trust by making room for differences.

While many of the working groups developed strong bonds of trust, trust was not inevitable. Due to the group members’ different backgrounds, there was understandable hesitancy in sharing ideas and collaborating, which require a degree of vulnerability. This hesitancy was only exacerbated by historic tensions between some of the movements represented by the groups. For example, while animal protection and farmer advocacy groups increasingly work together to advance shared aims, they have a history of tension, stemming in part from some animal protection organizations’ pattern of villainizing farmers as the enemy. For the working groups to collaborate successfully, they first had to build trust. 

One way the groups established trust among the participating organizations was by recognizing and valuing the differences that emerged between participants’ visions for a better food system. From the outset of the working groups, Stray Dog Institute emphasized that although our organization’s history is rooted in care for animals, working group members did not need to hold an identical set of beliefs or vision for food system change to collaborate with us or each other. The only common goal required was a desire to bring an end to industrial animal agriculture and to identify pathways toward a better food system for people, animals, and the environment.

In the Farm Transformation Working Group, Stray Dog Institute set the expectation that each organization might have a different vision for farm transformations, and that these different visions were equally valuable. Each organization was able to represent itself authentically, and this promoted honesty. The group ended up conceptualizing its members on an imaginary bus headed toward a plant-based food system, but from which participants could “hop off” at any stop—for example, at a food system that no longer included industrial animal agriculture but did include sustainable, pasture-based animal agriculture. Recognizing differences in vision—and valuing those differences—helped promote transparency and trust among working group members.

5. Create a shared vision through values.

While developing an understanding of differences was important to building trust, creating shared language around values was equally helpful for many of the groups. Although each member of the working groups held a slightly different vision for the specifics of the future food system they work to enable, what united them were the values that they agreed all future food systems should embody.

One tool that helped the Farm Transformation Working Group articulate these values was a “From-To” chart. In each row of the chart, group members listed a value or characteristic that the current food system embodies, and next to it, a corresponding value or characteristic that they would like to move to in a future food system.

Developing a language and understanding of shared values allowed the groups to build a compelling vision for their topics that did not depend on sharing the same practical model for a future food system. While the application of this learning may vary widely from group to group, we encourage conveners of collaborative processes to get creative about building alignment within their groups.

6. Cultivate power transparency.

As the groups’ convener and funder, Stray Dog Institute recognized at the outset that we held positional power in relation to working group participants. Through the lens of Trust-Based Philanthropy, we have learned that cultivating and modeling power transparency is an important part of building trusting relationships between funders and grantees. We aimed to do this in the working groups by clearly communicating our funding plans to participants. We were up-front about compensation, grant scheduling, and the limits of our willingness to fund. In addition, we aimed to draw clear lines between our role as convener and facilitator and the groups’ autonomy. We emphasized that we wished for the groups to develop their own thinking and that the work products they created did not need to align with Stray Dog Institute’s vision. We also stressed to the groups that we considered them the experts, and we frequently shared our gratitude for the opportunity to learn from them. When possible, we also shared insights with working group members about funders’ perspectives on the issues and provided opportunities for group members to speak with funders about the topics. Recognizing positional power and modeling power transparency can look many ways, but we encourage funders who convene nonprofit collaborations to consider what their positional power may be and how they could model power transparency to allow for greater trust within their groups.

Creating Collaborative Work Products

7. Let form follow function.

Similar to Point 3 of following the energy, we learned to let form follow function when it came to group structures, meeting schedules, outputs, and other elements of collaboration. The working groups initially met weekly to support discussion, trust-building, and roadmap development. However, after completing the roadmaps, the working groups decided to shift their cadences. While the Farm Transformation Working Group kept their weekly meeting schedule to continue project collaboration, the Factory Farm Gas Working Group changed their schedule to once monthly as their function shifted primarily to information and strategy-sharing. Similarly, while the Farm Transformation and Factory Farm Gas Strategic Roadmaps each total over 75 pages, the Checkoff Working Group chose to keep their roadmap shorter, just over 10 pages, with the goal of making the information more approachable to readers.

Funders or conveners may imagine certain standards for the collaborations they bring together. We advise caution in considering the structures that will best serve a collaboration’s purpose. We encourage collaboratives to stay flexible and open to change throughout the group process so that they can adjust as circumstances shift. We also encourage conveners to look to participants as the experts of their own collaboration and to solicit their feedback when considering decisions that impact the group.  

8. Consider who should hold the pen.

When creating collaboratively written products, we learned that it is essential to consider who should hold the pen—whether funders/facilitators, nonprofit leaders, or a combination. For the Farm Transformation Working Group, Stray Dog Institute provided the main source of writing based on what participants shared during working group discussions. Group members provided edits and suggestions, which Stray Dog Institute incorporated. The Factory Farm Gas and Checkoff Working Groups took a different approach. Due to the highly complex nature of the topics, we realized that it made the most sense for working group members to write the roadmap directly and for Stray Dog Institute to pen the non-technical sections and provide editing power. We learned that it can be challenging to write a technical narrative without a technical writer, and it is sometimes more trouble than it is worth to have a non-expert hold the pen. For a smooth collaborative process, we suggest considering who should hold the pen from the start and discussing this with groups to understand their preferences.

9. Choose words and audience thoughtfully.

The framing and words used to talk about different topics can be an important yet potentially overlooked element of collaborative work products. In the Factory Farm Gas Working Group, we carefully considered the tone of the strategic roadmap and the terminology we used. Because the roadmap was intended for funders, it was important that the voice of the document be fact-based and balanced. We also discussed what terminology we should use to refer to the actual topic of factory farm gas. When the working group began, the most popular term was “biogas.” Other industry terms used included “biomethane” and “renewable natural gas.” Over the course of the year, the working group benefited from the work of movement allies who felt that these terms, including “biogas,” played into the industry’s greenwashing narrative. The group decided that, despite some differences of opinion, “factory farm gas” was the most appropriate term for the roadmap, since it identified the reason the working group opposed its production, and it did not contribute to the industry’s narrative. Treating terminology and tone strategically and giving groups permission to adapt to different audiences can help determine the credibility and impact that collaboratives can have.

Steps for Approaching Nonprofit Collaboration

Below is a step-by-step guide outlining seven key decision points in the formation of nonprofit collaborations, built from Stray Dog Institute’s experience forming and facilitating collaborative working groups.

1. Group Size. How many people should this group include? What is an ideal range based on the goal(s) of your group? How will your group size contribute to building trust?
2. Meetings. How often—and in what format—will the group convene? How can you align form with function?
3. Time. Realistically, how much time will this group need to achieve its goal(s)? One of our most important lessons learned is that collaboration takes time. Recognize that the group may need more time than you originally budget for.
4. Setting Expectations. What should participants expect in terms of compensation, their roles in the group, who they represent, products of the collaboration, and what kinds of alignment group participation requires?
5. Collaborative Products. Will the group create collaborative product(s)? If so, what are the goals, timeline, audience, and appropriate language and tone for the product(s)?
6. Goals and Success. What are the stated goals of the group? What will characterize success? Are there markers beyond the explicit goals of the group that could demonstrate success—such as trust-building, new connections, or thought partnership?
7. Feedback. How will the group provide feedback to the facilitator, and how will the facilitating organization remain responsive and open to feedback?

Conclusion

While every collaborative effort is unique, we hope that our experiences and lessons learned can be an asset to funders and leaders in building fruitful nonprofit collaborations. We encourage funders and nonprofit leaders to lean into the often-messy process of collaboration and trust-building and learn from the experiences and relationships they gain along the way.


[i] Latine is a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” or “Latina.” Although both “Latine” and “Latinx” are used as gender-neutral terms, Latine provides an alternative that flows more organically with Spanish language pronunciation. Learn more about both terms here.

[ii] LGBTQIA+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer and/or questioning, intersex, and asexual and/or ally. The “+” represents identities not explicitly included by these terms. Learn more about these terms and others here.

About the author

Lauren Kohler

As Food Systems Program Manager, Lauren writes about the approach that Stray Dog Institute takes to food systems programming and philanthropy and shares lessons from her facilitation of Stray Dog Institute's collaborative working groups. Lauren is motivated by the vision of a food system that is just and sustainable for people, animals, and the environment.

By Lauren Kohler

About the Author

As Food Systems Program Manager, Lauren writes about the approach that Stray Dog Institute takes to food systems programming and philanthropy and shares lessons from her facilitation of Stray Dog Institute's collaborative working groups. Lauren is motivated by the vision of a food system that is just and sustainable for people, animals, and the environment.

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