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Nonprofits: Sharing Sugar

There must be a real exchange of resources between organizations

In 1840, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited the mid-Atlantic, he was struck by America’s power to collaborate. Americans “seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact,” he wrote; “From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded.”

What Tocqueville admired—what he called the “association”—was the ability of everyday citizens to come together collectively on behalf of an issue or a cause. This early collaborative spirit was the starting point for American nonprofit governance, and informs the community organizing strategies and platforms that we still see today. Indeed, “collaboration” and “partnership” are two of the most commonly used words in the nonprofit sector, used so much that they border on jargon: Nonprofit conferences devote whole tracks to the subject, literally thousands of books and articles focus on these areas, and entire sub-industries have been created and dedicated to it.

Yet with all this focus on collaboration and partnership, the nonprofit sector is forgetting some of the main ingredients of collaboration and partnership that helped form our sector many years ago. The sector has grown in resources, but the majority of our organizations have not benefitted: With more information at our fingertips than ever before, our data and stories aren’t driving us toward shared learning but competition; with a renewed focus on trust in our society, we find that our communities are more unsure of our sector and our organizations are more unsure on how to come together; and with more tools to help us collaborate, we have moved farther and farther away. 

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