Collaboration versus Competition

Is Nova Scotia on the right track by investigating the merits of a single, unified heritage strategy?

Of course the obvious motivation for doing so is financial: figuring out how to spread around limited monetary resources in a way that makes sense.  Culturally, too, it seems to make sense that like-minded organizations work together: collaboration is an intuitive response for many nonprofits – the sector as a whole defines itself as inherently collaborative.  But where collaboration makes the most sense is in the opportunity to build a strong provincial brand capable of making a big impact.

Unfortunately, collaboration doesn’t always work. A new book by David La Piana and Michaela Hayes – Play to Win: The Nonprofit Guide to Competitive Strategy – reminds us the process can be difficult if there is little real cooperative intent.  Many times collaboration is pursued solely to meet a funder’s demand. And when there is no real collaborative impetus – if working together never gets beyond being more than a vague concept –  “pseudocollaboration” becomes “a major time sink.”

La Piana and Hayes think it’s time nonprofits faced reality: it takes time and energy to nurture and maintain real, enduring collaborative relationships. And because “it is the responsibility of effective nonprofits…to do everything in their power to attract the resources they need to continue and expand their work,” the authors advise nonprofits to consider competition as a powerful catalyst “to create a more sustainable organization.”

The essence of a viable organizational strategy and of being able to successfully advance a mission is the ability to differentiate oneself, and leverage unique and attractive attributes.  Museums do need to build their brands, and develop stronger public identities, if they are to build new audiences. “Brand images are solutions in media-dense societies,” Neil Kotler and Philip Kotler wrote in Museum Strategy and Marketing, “they’re a low-cost way to raise public visibility and presence in people’s minds.”  The image behind a brand name will communicate qualities that people will want to turn to again and again, or to enter the museum for the first time.

La Piana and Hayes may endorse competition for nonprofits, but they wouldn’t recommend Nova Scotia’s heritage department stop investigating options for collaboration.  Nonprofit competition, they’re quick to point out, is highly nuanced: competition and collaboration exist “as a spectrum of relationships, not as polar opposites and certainly not as mutually exclusive choices.”

The challenge facing nonprofit leaders is to have a clear understanding of and commitment to a mission.  But that mission does not have to be confined to a single museum. The mission Nova Scotia museums need to be committed to is Nova Scotia itself.  Build and promote its brand.

In a recently released volume of essays, Looking Reality in the Eye: Museums and Social Responsibility, Janet Pieschel wrote that museums must become a focal point of community discussion.  I would take that a step further: because museums reflect the individual nature of their communities, they should assume greater responsibility for incubating a sense of place.

Collaboration in the heritage sector may be borne out of practicality, but has worthwhile by-product: attracting new audiences to the Nova Scotia story.  Over the next year Nova Scotia has a unique opportunity to refashion what effective collaborative practice means, and to reveal the opportunities behind striving for a larger goal: helping Nova Scotia compete for attention in a deeper, more meaningful way.

However, once the common ground, and common purpose has been established, museums still need to build new relationships with their publics.  Collaboration can produce the sustainability – and success – museums seek only if it is leveraged effectively.

That means learning to communicate effectively. To become a focal point of community discussion, museums need to tell their unique stories.  A broadly-conceived common communications strategy will inspire people to associate with Nova Scotian heritage, and will help the heritage sector — and province as a whole — find unserved customers in less-than-obvious places.  They can use stories imbedded in books, magazines, and websites to broaden the current definition of “visitor,” to attract people to Nova Scotia even when they aren’t visiting, and keep people connected between their visits.

Those are the relationships the Nova Scotia brand needs, and the relationships the province’s heritage sector can provide if it collaborates effectively.

(Originally published in The Bulletin (Federation of Nova Scotian Heritage), 15 August 2005)

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