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Relational Capacity: Why Does Working Together Feel So Damn Hard?

Collaboration is a nice idea—but not “a given.” And in the social sector, capacity is not born, but built—through coaching, patience acquisition, shifting one’s natural tendencies to control—plus countless other interventions. Similarly, it is assumed that, just because more than one social sector actor wishes to work alongside and in true cooperation with others, that an innate set of skills and experiences will kick into gear to make this possible.

At TCC Group, we have been exploring this concept for several years—all the while, acknowledging the collaborative and collective impact work proposed by our consulting colleagues. Tackling this at the organizational level rather than with individual collaborators, we’ve questioned how nonprofits can fully leverage their entire toolbelt—especially their partnerships—to become sustainable and meet the challenges of the current moment. To do so requires re-envisioning our idea of an “effective nonprofit” to include the ability to work successfully in relationship with others. It also demands we support and invest in a nonprofit’s capacity to effectively build and leverage relationships with peers, constituents, funders, and businesses in their communities.

TCC Group is proposing a name and definition for this proficiency: relational capacity—otherwise defined as an organization’s ability to a) understand its positioning within its ecosystem; and b) build and activate relationships with others in and across sectors.

To assist nonprofit organizations in assessing and building their relational capacity, TCC Group has identified eight areas critical for nonprofits looking to partner more effectively with others in their community:

Capacity Area Indicators of Capacity
1. Ecosystem Analysis: Analyzing and understanding one’s social sector ecosystem, including knowledge of all the key actors (nonprofits, government agencies, funders, businesses, media, civic/religious groups, community leaders, clients/constituents, etc.), and the dynamics that shape relationships among those actors.
  • An organization is aware of the various ecosystem actors that influence their work: resource providers, key allies and complementary movements, clients and beneficiaries, opponents, and influential bystanders, etc.
  • An organization regularly engages with ecosystem actors.
2. Organizational Awareness: The ability of an organization to recognize its unique role and value within an ecosystem based on its organizational and programmatic assets and resources.
  • An organization’s staff, Board and partners understand and can clearly articulate its mission and its unique niche in the ecosystem.
  • An organization’s staff, Board, and partners understand their key organizational assets and resources, and know how and when to activate them for greater impact.
3. Relational Skills: The leadership skills needed to build and maintain relationships with others, including engaging stakeholders, knowing when and how to cede control, addressing power dynamics, and building trust relationships.
  • Organizational leaders actively engage with partners on a consistent basis.
  • Organizational leaders address power dynamics between and among partners.
  • Organizational leaders are comfortable ceding control to partners.
4. Relational Culture: The ability of nonprofit leadership to foster an organizational culture that values and seeks out opportunities for collaboration.
  • Organizational leaders value and seek out opportunities for collaboration.
  • Organizational leaders support staff in seeking opportunities for collaboration.
5. Cultural Competency: The ability of a nonprofit to understand and appropriately respond to the existing and changing cultural variables of others, including ability, age, beliefs, ethnicity, experience, gender, gender identity, linguistic background, national origin, race, religion, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status.
  • Staff and Board members reflect the various cultures present within the community that the organization serves.
  • Staff members are trained to communicate and interact effectively and respectfully with individuals of diverse cultural and linguistic backgrounds.
6. Program Strategy Alignment: The ability of a nonprofit to set shared programmatic goals and coordinate strategies with other actors.
  • An organization designs its programmatic strategies to complement the work of its partners.
  • Desired outcomes of a collaborative endeavor are stated and agreed upon at the onset of a collaboration.
  • An organization engages in joint budgeting or fundraising efforts with partners to support common programmatic goals.
7. Collaborative Infrastructure: The organizational structures and systems for collaboration, including for the management and coordination of personnel, information, and resources.
  • The organization has the appropriate systems and resources to allocate personnel to maintaining relationships.
  • An organization’s financial systems are able to manage collaborative financing.
  • Data and information systems are in place to enable sharing across organizations.
8. Outcome Analysis: The ability to evaluate the impact of, learn from, and continuously improve collaborative relationships.
  • Progress toward outcomes is measured regularly.
  • Partners understand the added value of collaboration.
  • Organizations apply learning from past partnerships to new collaborations.

A nonprofit that has strengthened each of the above areas will be better equipped to engage in more complex collaborations to achieve increased impact with partners.

Interested in Assessing Your Nonprofit’s Relational Capacity?

As part of our commitment to help the social sector emerge stronger from the devastating effects of COVID-19, TCC Group is now offering five of its diagnostic tools plus technical assistance—including Relational Capacityfree of charge (numbers are limited so respond quickly). For more information about this offer click here or email info@tccgrp.com.

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