Synthesis Partnership - Critical Issues in Strategy, Planning & Organizational Development for Nonprofits



Critical Issues highlights some of the complex issues facing nonprofits, and the opportunities imbedded in them for advancing mission.

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Synthesis Partnership

Consulting in
strategy, planning & organizational development
for nonprofits.

683 Commonwealth Avenue
Newton MA 02459

617 340 9991

Other Issues


#1 Why plan?
12 ways to serve mission.

#2 The Secret Life of Surveys
It’s about communication.

#3 Untangling the Web
Catching up.

#4 On Boards
Get the most out of a board.

#5 The Structure of Planning
Tilt the odds toward success.

#6 Financial Modeling
Pre-test your decisions.

#7 On Mission
Why a mission statement?

#8 The Measure of Success
Metrics are essential tools.

#9 Nonprofit Brand Identity?
Mission, stability, & revenue.

#10 Mind Your RFPs & Qs
Hire wisely.

#11 Integrated Planning
Strategic planning is not sufficient.

#12 Business Planning
Strengthen sustainability.

#13 Facility Planning
Reduce cost & risk, improve quality.

#14 Managing Change
Stay alert and adapt.

#15 Strategic Action
Create plans that work.

#17 Fear of Planning
When is strategy a bad thing?

#18 Tools for Planning
More resources for planning.

#19 New & Renew
38 Tips for Success.




Planning for yourself?


We’re happy to offer as much (or as little) guidance as you need.
Use our experience to assure your success.


Call Sam Frank at 617 969 1881 or e-mail us to discuss the possibilities.

Sam Frank



All About Collaboration

71 resources for nonprofits
Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

It could be argued that collaboration is the quintessential characteristic of the nonprofit sector. Once I focused on the topic of collaboration as this quarter’s Critical Issue, I realized how much collaboration was at the core of all the others as well:

Most of our previous discussions have focused on collaboration within the organization, but this time we’re expanding the frame to include collaborations between organizations as well.

Collaboration between nonprofits

Unlike internal collaboration, collaboration with other organizations is not necessarily a fundamental requirement in every organization every day. But in one form or another it has become increasingly common.

With increases in technological and regulatory complexity, donor and consumer expectations, financial and time pressure, and competition for attention, collaboration can be an effective approach to expanding the reach of programs and services, making them more efficient and effective, and getting support for them.

Collaboration can take many forms. In recent years there has been a lot of talk in the funding community about reducing overhead expenses of nonprofits by eliminating redundancies. Quite often this is intended to mean mergers. Setting aside the question in any given case of whether a merger really makes as much sense on close inspection as it does as an outside idea, there are at least two major hurdles for mergers: it is very difficult to get executive directors and boards interested in pursuing them (for all kinds of reasons), and once a merger is consummated, the operational, strategic and cultural integration is often unsuccessful (also for all kinds of reasons).

A much easier way to reduce wasted efforts and resources is some more modest form of collaboration. Nonprofits can work together to extend their reach and increase their effectiveness in serving their mission at a number of different levels:

At the most basic level, separate organizations providing services for the same population may be able to serve their missions more effectively by coordination. This can be a matter of simply sharing calendars—soup kitchens serving meals on different days or times, organizations avoiding scheduling conflicts for fundraising events, independent schools consulting on snow days.

Beyond an arms-length scheduling relationship, organizations may be able to find common ground for cooperation. Performing arts groups or venues can jointly host a festival. Social service agencies can discuss and agree on the array of services they provide—differentiating services, geographies or populations. And similar organizations can gain valuable insights by pooling a wide variety of data in benchmarking consortia.

At the next level, nonprofits collaborate to achieve a goal that neither is capable of alone. Some advocacy organizations routinely form coalitions to integrate strategy in publicity, lobbying, or other action. Cultural organizations come together to create joint exhibitions and performances on a timely theme.

When a collaboration seems like a good long-term idea, organizations may enter into a more formal joint venture arrangement. This degree of integration shares some of the potential pitfalls of a merger, however, and should be examined very carefully before entering into contractual arrangements. One example from our work of a joint venture is a consortium of about 20 small organizations that joined forces to form a collective museum. This was an inspiring idea that turned out to be much more difficult to realize than any of the participating organizations realized. The fundamental missing element, developing a structure of trust, is described in “Trusting in Us”.

Resources for collaboration

In the spirit of collaboration, I’ve structured this collection of resources from multiple sources:

  • “Use the Power of Meetings to Create a Culture of Collaboration,” a look at getting more out of the ways that we already spend our time, by Deborah Pruitt of Group Alchemy Consulting.
  • “Trusting in Us,” an introduction to knowledge networks by Kate Pugh, of Align Consulting, in collaboration with me.
  • “Collaboration: What Works and Why,” a panel discussion webinar on the mechanisms of and impediments to various forms of collaboration between organizations. Participants will have the opportunity to pose questions to the panel both before the webinar and during it.
  • “You+You+You=Partnership Program,” a resource list on nonprofit partnerships assembled by Sophie Parker, of Sophie Parker & Associates LLC, in collaboration with the listserv of the Boston Facilitators Roundtable.
  • Collaboration resources from IdeaEncore, a service of GoodDoneGreat, assembled by Jamie Maloney.
  • A selection of webinars relating in various ways to collaboration, from the archive of Nonprofit Webinars, a free series of professional development offerings that I have directed since 2009, also a service of GoodDoneGreat.

Sam Frank founded Synthesis Partnership in 1995 to advise nonprofits in strategy, planning and organizational development and change. He has offered workshops on strategic, business, and integrated planning at many national and regional conferences of nonprofit associations. In 2009 he co-founded Nonprofit Webinars, and as Director, hosts webinars weekly.



Use the Power of Meetings
to Create a Culture of Collaboration
Deborah Pruitt, Ph.D., Group Alchemy Consulting

When you want to create more powerful collaboration, one of the quickest ways is through your regular meetings. The fact is that the true significance of meetings is rarely understood or developed. Most people think of meetings as situations for sharing information and getting things done. That is true, but they are much more than that.

Culture and Collaboration

Every time you meet together you create and recreate your group’s culture. And your culture is what determines what is possible in your organization. …

Power of Meetings

All cultures have rituals. Rituals are key events where people learn, experience, and enact the values and beliefs of their culture. For organizational cultures, the most prominent and meaningful ritual is usually the group meeting. …

Do your meetings support collaboration?

These questions can help you evaluate your culture. These apply to every meeting, whether just two people or two hundred. …


[for the full article in Critical Issues 16 (pdf) click here]

Deborah Pruitt, Ph.D., anthropologist and founder of Group Alchemy Consulting, is the author of Group Alchemy: The Six Elements of Highly Successful Collaboration. For more specific ideas about how to develop your meetings into engines of collaboration and success go to Group Alchemy Consulting and get a complimentary copy of “Meeting Alchemy:™ Five Habits for Meetings That Produce Results.”



Trusting in Us
by Kate Pugh, Align Consulting,
with Sam Frank, Synthesis Partnership

In the 1980s and 1990s many nonprofits realized that they couldn’t go it alone. Donors increasingly expected their recipients to increase efficiency, reduce redundancy, and not “reinvent the wheel.” At the same time, the Internet added to the volume and complexity of what we needed to know. In response we tried partnerships, but that approach proved somewhat inflexible. Then, in the 2000s and 2010s, nonprofits added a new model: the community of practice or knowledge network, or “network,” for short.

What’s different with the network is members’ voluntary participation and relative autonomy. Through the network’s diversity and decentralization, we’ve started to see more reach to constituencies that are connected by only “weak ties,” greater ability to scale and spread ideas, more agile program coordination, and ultimately more impact on the greater good.

Research conducted by Kate Pugh and Larry Prusak for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation identified five distinct behaviors of members in a functioning network:
1. Articulating common objectives
2. Claiming a cohesive identity
3. Connecting generously out to their personal networks
4. Voluntarily using a working “platform”
5. Collaborating in a way that sacrifices individual goals for the common good

These behaviors appear to come from a drive to economize on resources, feel connection and pursue a common purpose. That drive is a sense of mutuality—a shared identity and a shared sense of fate.

However, we learned that mutuality and shared fate, no matter how compelling, do not produce the functioning network behaviors on an ongoing basis. Members can get weary or distracted. And even the common purpose can appear fuzzy as the environment shifts around us. For a network to use those functional behaviors sustainably it must succeed in igniting and renewing the flame of trust.

To develop trust, network leaders must set into motion a powerful feedback loop of members’ realizing network benefits, coming to trust in the network, acting out the five behaviors listed above, and realizing more benefits. …


[for the full article in Critical Issues 16 (pdf) click here]

Katrina (Kate) Pugh is a consultant, author, lecturer and the president of AlignConsulting, a firm that helps organizations harness untapped knowledge and channel insight into action. She is on the faculty of Columbia University’s Information and Knowledge Strategy Masters Program. Her book, “Sharing Hidden Know-How: How Managers Solve Thorny Problems with the Knowledge Jam,” (Jossey-Bass, 2011) serves as a practical guidebook for solving common business problems.