Over the last year, thousands of nonprofits have had to adapt traditional services to meet changing demands emerging from the coronavirus (COVID-19) in an unprecedented, socially distanced landscape. For some organizations, the effects of lockdown on capacity and sustainability have been devastating, pointing to the need for new, more resilient systems. For others, the challenge has been quickly scaling to meet increased demand for services.
Older Adults Technology Services (OATS), the nonprofit I founded in 2004 to help seniors learn technology to transform themselves and their communities, is no stranger to either of these issues. Scalability and systems change have been two core goals as we’ve sought to grow our impact in response to COVID-19. But as Ryan Glasgo and Sandhya Nakhasi note, these ideas can appear to be at odds: “[S]cale requires a competitive approach to growth, for example, while systems change requires collaboration, transparency, sharing, and collective adaptation.” One tool OATS has employed to reconcile these impact approaches is the catalyst partnership: an arrangement where OATS helps another, larger organization create or improve a program or service so that their clients are more connected, empowered, or successful.
Catalyst partnerships are important because they enable what we call “leveraged impact,” or the acceleration of social outcomes through connections with existing, high-capacity organizations. Rather than building a client base and distributing services directly, catalyst partnerships enable smaller organizations to contribute unique knowledge, content, or support to a larger organization that can translate their role to a more extensive footprint with larger impact. A successful catalyst partnership will leverage the strengths of each entity to generate transformative change at scale. We have found that the following three guidelines are particularly helpful when considering a partnership like this.
#1: Establish a shared goal.
Catalyst partnerships are not corporate philanthropy, but rather mutually-beneficial collaborations between two organizations where, while one may have more expansive resources, both sides bring complementary assets to the table. It’s essential that the ultimate goal for the partnership is authentically aligned with both organizations’ core values.
#2: Identify each organization’s unique strengths.
Large organizations take many years to develop wide-ranging networks of operations, properties, and customers, but they may still benefit from the specialized support of smaller, innovative social change organizations. For example, Capital One wanted to encourage older customers to make use of their online banking tools, but learned that many seniors are uncomfortable with online financial management. OATS tapped into its experience and knowledge in developing technology programming for seniors and designed more than 50 online instructional videos using Capital One’s financial expertise that have been viewed by more than 200,000 visitors on Capital One’s website.
#3: Determine what needs expansion.
Some catalyst partnerships operate by bringing a smaller organization’s program directly to a larger organization’s audience. Others might achieve a stronger impact by supporting a larger organization’s capacity with niche expertise. When the Israeli nonprofit JDC Eshel was tasked with finding a way to include more seniors in a national campaign to close the digital divide, OATS worked with them to provide a series of capacity building trainings along with a partner guide with resources for trainers and world-class content to help shape their practice at scale, resourcing them to work more effectively with other organizations and helping them better serve more than 10,000 older adults in Israel.
The social impact space provides a great opportunity for organizations like OATS to use these types of leveraged-impact partnerships to achieve strategic objectives, support sustainability, and overcome the challenges of scale. By combining the deep customer knowledge and program expertise from nimble organizations with the infrastructure, reach, and reputation of more established entities, smaller nonprofits can multiply outcomes without having to devote years of effort to building mass delivery systems in-house. Over the last eight months, catalyst partnerships have played a significant role in helping OATS connect with more than double the number of seniors we’d worked with over the last fifteen years. And as the long-term effects of COVID-19 on the social impact space continue to unfold, we are betting the catalyst partnership model will prove to be a game-changer for many others as well.
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