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The Root Cause Blog
09 Nov

Collaborative Learning: A potential alternative to mergers

Written by Prathama Nabi, Research Associate, Consulting

Over the past decade, an explosion in the number of nonprofits in the United States, combined with a recession, has forced many organizations to do more with less. This, in turn, has resulted in a great deal of attention paid to nonprofit mergers. Although merger conversations often fail to lead to a decision to merge, the information shared during these conversations can be highly beneficial. In situations where a merger may not be the right solution, an in-depth, facilitated exchange of information can help organizations accelerate their growth and strengthen their abilities toward producing better outcomes.

‘Collaborative Learning: A Case Study on More Than Wheels and Ways to Work’ analyzes the experience of More Than Wheels and Ways to Work to provides a framework for collaborative learning, an alternative to merger negotiations. Collaborative learning is a structured, facilitated learning process with a degree of depth that is similar to that of merger conversations. Through exchanges facilitated by a third party, nonprofits learn about strategies and programs that would take years to discover on their own, enabling them to strengthen their own organizations without engaging in a merger.

This form of learning can have a substantial impact on an organization’s ability to learn faster and grow smarter, saving organizations the time and resources of trying to do the work on their own or hiring a consultant. It also makes it possible for organizations tackling similar issues to work together as collaborators rather than competitors. Finally, for funders, it provides a cost-effective approach of supporting grantees by helping them identify ways to strengthen and grow their organizations, ultimately leading to better outcomes.

This was the case for More Than Wheels and Ways to Work, two poverty reduction programs which initially explored a merger. More Than Wheels helps low-to moderate-income individuals and families secure the lowest prices on cars by negotiating with car dealers and by providing program participants with low-interest loans. In late 2009, More Than Wheels was looking to expand its impact beyond its original New Hampshire site. One of its funders, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, suggested that More Than Wheels might benefit from a potential merger conversation with Ways to Work. Ways to Work provides low-income families with small, short-term loans that are used to buy or repair a car in 95 percent of the cases. The merger talks led More Than Wheels and Ways to Work to determine that a merger was not the optimal solution for either organization to scale its impact. Despite this decision, both organizations found the in-depth discussions and information exchange beneficial to growing their individual organizations. More Than Wheels was able to shift its growth strategy, and Ways to Work used knowledge it gained about More Than Wheels to shape the development of a new program, called “Next Step to Success,” to help qualified clients acquire bigger loans.

The case study explores how More Than Wheels and Ways to Work gained valuable insights from each other to strengthen their organizations, thus serving as a model for collaborative learning. In the conclusion, the case study demonstrates how other organizations can also learn from a similar exchange, offering a four-step framework for other organizations to engage in collaborative learning.