By Meenakshi Dasnonprofit analytics consultant

…we must shift our outlook on collaborations to be inclusive, equitable, ethical, and respectful for both parties involved.

Geometry teaches a lesson — all squares are rectangles, but not all rectangles are squares. I recently realized this holds just as true for the collaborations of our industry. Human-centered, values-aligned partnerships may represent collaboration, but not every collaboration will be human-centered and values-aligned. 

Whether our collaborations take the form of corporate sponsorships, speaking engagements at annual events, or a vendor-partnership, we must shift our outlook on collaborations to be inclusive, equitable, ethical, and respectful for both parties involved.

In my role as a nonprofit analytics consultant, I consult, train, write, and speak on different data-related, data-centered projects, guided by the belief that each of us deserves a loving, curiosity-driven, well-represented relationship with data. I am a BIPOC woman, a first-generation immigrant to North America (from India). 

Through my perspective and because of my identities, hearing the phrases below motivates me to ask us to rethink our partnerships:

    • “…reaching out because we want to diversify our speakers though we can’t offer any honorarium…”,
    • “…those benefits are only restricted to our platinum sponsor-partners to engage with our members. But we can give you a virtual session space to elevate your work…”,
    • “…we elevate your voice, so we expect…”,
    • “…our sponsors want to bring a few BIPOC candidates for [this work]. We thought of reaching out to you…”

The fundamental issue in collaborations led by such statements is those collaborations are not two-way. They are not based on why someone’s work or values alignment makes them a good potential for partnering. They also disregard someone’s work and potential by choosing language like “we elevate BIPOC people…”

So, how can collaborations (of all forms) in our nonprofit industry become an inclusive, equitable two-way street?

Here are 5 ways:

1. All collaborations must start with values alignment and not dollar-value packages.

For example, take sponsorship opportunities, for example. Recently, as part of my research, I visited the web pages of 10 different philanthropic institutions to see how they approach sponsorships. Most of them had three things: a table that listed dollar values based on sponsor levels, a comparison of sponsorship benefits, and current sponsors. 

The message was loud and clear on the pages — the higher the value, the more the benefits (ranging from influence in the annual conference or galas to the number of times sponsors can be positioned before the audience). All those pages were missing a short paragraph or table of the values every sponsor must meet to become a partner. Those benefits tables also missed an extra column specifying the accountability of every sponsor — that is, how the overall combined values would need to be maintained by the sponsors not to perpetuate any community harm.

We need both clarity on values alignment before the sponsorship packages AND a set of fundamental accountabilities every partner must ensure.

2. No form of collaboration gives decision-making privileges in the nonprofit’s operations.

For example, take conference sponsors. Sponsors should not be given decision-making privileges because it could compromise the independence and integrity of the conference. Allowing a sponsor to have a say in the organization’s decision-making could also create the perception that the nonprofit is accountable to its sponsor, which could undermine public trust and support for the organization. 

Decisions like who speaks at the conference, why they are selected (or why not), topics of the conference and keynote speakers — all such aspects of the conference must be internal to the organization. Such decisions cannot be part of the benefits of higher sponsor packages.

We need to remember the purpose and influence of that conference on the community in the long run.

3. All collaborations must center the well-being of all people involved.

For example, take a virtual annual event. Collaborations here must center the well-being of fundraiser hosts and speakers as much as the attendees. Prioritizing the well-being of all people creates a culture of respect and support that helps ensure the collaboration is successful. 

This means setting up clarity during planning on what would make the collaboration (annual event in this example) successful beyond dollar values. And then clearly communicating those well-being-centered success criteria to everyone involved. When all parties feel their well-being is considered, they are more likely to be engaged, motivated, and committed to the collaboration.

4. All collaborations are set up with clear expectations — of why, what, how, when, and how long.

For example, take a podcast or social channel where a nonprofit wants to include local speakers from racially and socially diverse communities. Setting up clear expectations for both parties involved ensures equitability — expectations like:

    • why (the speaker is invited),
    • what (will the collaboration entails),
    • how (will the collaboration, from planning to any needed marketing, unfold),
    • when (will the collaboration happen), and,
    • how long (are the two parties required to share accountabilities of the collaboration).

This ensures all efforts into the collaboration are aligned, respectful, and meaningful to both the nonprofit and the speaker. It also reduces misunderstandings that can potentially cause harm for the speakers (e.g., tokenizing them).

5. All collaborations must prioritize the humanity of the collaborators at all points. 

The secret of building better collaborations is simple — focus on human beings and their values. The purpose of collaborations is community engagement, after all.

We must realize and remember collaborations are not a favor to either party. That means using humanizing language at all points — from bringing in a collaborator to post-collaboration activities. Humanizing language prioritizes the person over their identity. For example, while bringing a new collaborator from a racially diverse community for your project, instead of saying, 

“…we want to elevate BIPOC voices in this [conference/magazine/webinar/podcast]…”, 

use language like 

“…we want to share the space in [conference/magazine/webinar/podcast] with you because of [specific reasons why their work interests you].” 

This kind of language acknowledges the humanity and individuality of each person rather than reducing them to a label or a characteristic. By using humanizing language, collaborations can create a culture of mutual respect, empathy, and inclusion. 

The secret of building better collaborations is simple — focus on human beings and their values. The purpose of collaborations is community engagement, after all.

Collaborations that de-centers the humanity (even if unmaliciously) risk creating more emotional burden for a subset of the people involved/impacted by the partnership. I want us to reach a place where no one involved/impacted by our industry collaborations have self-doubt moments like, “am I here because of my work or my social identity?” 

Human-centered collaborations create belongingness, the fundamental catalyst for sustainable progress. 

So, go back to all potential collaborations in your work and take a moment to evaluate each of them. Are they inclusive, equitable, ethical, and respectful for both parties?

Collaborations are a two-way street. Full-stop.

Meenakshi Das

Meenakshi Das

Meena Das (she/her/hers) is the founder, consultant, and facilitator at her practices NamasteData and Data Is For Everyone. Her work is focused on data equity. She leads her work with love for the community, respect for her lived experiences and knowledge from decade plus experience of working with data. She supports nonprofits in 3 core areas: data collection assessments, community surveys, and staff workshops on improving data equity (through data collection, visualization, human-centric algorithms etc.) Connect with her on LinkedIn at: