At the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at JFKU’s recent Philanthropy Summit, several big ideas emerged for how nonprofits can build capacity, expand opportunity, and scale up toward greater success. One of these ideas was the notion of collaborative leadership, specifically, collaboration among organizations. The idea was simply and powerfully that when small nonprofits share and exchange ideas, education, and resources, bigger results become possible.

What can collaborative leadership look like? What might it include? How can it start? And, why is it important? In a world-cafe-style brainstorming session, Summit participants explored these questions together. The answers had a lot to do with generating an awareness of the people, ideas, and resources around us and seeking out partnerships and opportunities to share.

In her afternoon address, speaker, consultant, and social scientist Hildy Gottlieb described forming partnerships as a way of combating scarcity. “Together we have everything we need,” she said. “It is only on our own that we experience scarcity.” She continued, “There is so much capacity in our communities, even in impoverished communities. We never know who’s out there and who has what.” Until, of course, we start asking. In Gottlieb’s example she and her business partner were able to nearly single-handedly organize a large-scale diaper drive on a shoe-string budget largely by identifying other members of the community, even those in the for-profit sector, who had the resources they needed and partnering with them. Sharing, suggested Gottlieb, counteracts the impulse to horde, be competitive, and build walls. Instead, it makes everyone involved feel stronger because they have something to offer.

In addition to creating a sense of abundance, collaborative leadership generates awareness of big ideas, shared motivations, and potential for impact. As Dr. Benisa Berry, Diversity and Inclusion Officer at JFKU emphasized, “We are all running around only in our own spheres so we’re not getting our work out there on a wide enough scale.” Not only can collaboration help organizations generate greater capacity, it can help isolated nonprofits connect with others in their sector to form a bigger, more impactful picture. According to Miguel Gonzalez, Board Vice President of Solo Opera, it would be beneficial for small companies such as his to collaborate with other likeminded organizations to pool resources, “and not just in terms of funding, but in terms of exposure to the community.”

Convening over 200 community leaders from nonprofits throughout the region, the Summit itself was an excellent example of collaborative leadership at work. “It is always useful to talk to people who are in similar situations as us,” said Al Miller, President of the El Cerrito Library Foundation. As the day drew to a close, both Gottlieb and keynote speaker Kathleen Kelly Janus encouraged their audience to continue the type of exchange they had experienced at the Summit. “This can go beyond conferences,” said Janus in her closing remarks, and encouraged the formation of dinner groups, professional development groups, or even reading or writing groups—ways in which, on a regular and informal basis, participants might continue to tackle issues and help each other. “Together we have everything we need,” emphasized Gottlieb. “Despite the fact that society encourages us to go it alone, there is no such thing as going it alone. There is no thing on the planet that goes it alone.”

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