Achieving Organizational Collaboration in the Nonprofit Sector: An Action Research Approach

Article excerpt


This article describes how action research was used to explore possibilities for closer organizational collaboration between eight independent voluntary agencies working in the HIV/AIDS field in the UK. Six of the eight eventually decided to merge. We present the main features of the particular action research approach employed (an approach known as `social analysis) and consider the features of the approach, which helped to facilitate organizational change. Finally we discuss the implications of this case for facilitating change in the voluntary sector in the future.


In 1998, eight independent voluntary organizations working in the field of HIV/AIDS in the UK commissioned a research team, including the two authors of this article, to conduct a study into options for working together more closely (1). This article describes and analyses how an action research approach was used to explore possibilities for closer organizational collaboration and led eventually to a full merger of six of the original eight members of the commissioning group.

We begin by explaining the background to the project, including the organizations involved and how they came to commission the work. We then describe our research approach - a particular type of action research known as ,social analysis'. Following a presentation of what happened during the action research period in this case, we discuss features of the social analytic process and the implications of our study for facilitating change in the voluntary sector in the future.

The Research Commission

The research was commissioned by a consortium comprising eight independent organizations working in the field of HIV/AIDS in the UK. Seven of the eight were already collaborating to a limited extent; they were part of an information-sharing network (referred to here as HIVA); their CEOs met regularly to discuss policy and practice issues and they co-operated to a limited extent in advocacy work and staff training. The remaining agency was not part of HIVA but was longer established than any of the other agencies and well known nationally - The Terrence Higgins Trust or THT. (The eight agencies are referred to in the remainder of this article as 'participants'.)

The eight agencies were interested in principle in forming some kind of organizational alliance but they had no pre-conceived notion about what form this might take. Rather than employing consultants, they commissioned the study as a piece of independent research, which would be used by the consortium to further its own internal discussions (Cairns, 1999; Harris et al, 2000). In effect, what was commissioned was a piece of action research (Argyris et al, 1985; Elden and Chisholm, 1993; Hart and Bond, 1995; Lewin, 1946), in that the 'independent study' had three key features:

a. it was focused on issues of practice;

b. the work was to be carried out by the researchers in collaboration with the agency CEOs who had commissioned it, and

c. it was intended that the study itself would be part of, and would facilitate, a process of change.

Within the broad approach of action research, the study team decided to work according to principles of 'social analysis'; a collaborative approach to organizational change whose roots can be traced to work in the 1950s and 1960s at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations; especially to work carried out by Elliott Jaques in the Glacier Metal Company (Jaques, 1976a). Researchers in the Brunel University Institute of Organization and Social Studies (BIOSS) later adopted the social analytic approach for their organizational development work in public service organizations (BIOSS, 1974; Billis et al, 1980).

Social Analysis

'Social analysis' shares with other forms of action research a problem-oriented approach. It focuses especially on problems experienced within organizations (as distinct from problems of individuals, communities or small social groupings). …