Collaboration is currently a major push among non-profit and governmental funders, and I believe working collectively with complementary organizations can be a powerful force for positive change. If that sounds like a bit of a qualified statement, it is. Notice I said “can be” not “is”, and that positive change comes in partnering with complementary organizations, not just any organization.
Collaboration is a means to an end. It is something you do to reach a clearly stated goal. It is not (or at least in my opinion should not be) the goal in and of itself. Collaboration does not mean any organization in the community that offers a certain type of service has to be included in the discussion, nor does it mean every party has an equal part to play in the effort. Lastly, collaboration does not mean that the “big fish” takes all the risk, but all parties share equally in the rewards.
Let me reiterate, I think collaboration, when done well, can be extremely effective in addressing complex, multi-layered challenges. Unfortunately, all too often, it is not done well. I have seen far too many instances when the pressure to collaborate has led organizations to spend untold hours on efforts that merely spin in circles, rather than gaining traction in moving toward the goal. And then there are the committees where participants give lip service to collaborating while also trying to grab maximum gain for their own organization rather than working for the common good, contorting the original goals in strange directions. As the saying goes, a camel is a horse designed by committee . . . and I’ve seen a lot of camels lately.
So how do you avoid wasting your resources on a collaboration camel? First of all, pick your partners carefully. Shared values are ideal, or at the very least a shared understanding of the goal, the risks and the rewards are critical for a successful collaboration. As much as possible, it should be an “effort among equals” where each participant is aware of what they bring to the table, and how their contribution complements the other participating organizations in meeting the stated goal.
Secondly, you have to be willing to lay your cards on the table with all the collaborative partners. Resist requests for a meeting before the meeting/meeting after the meeting/side meeting. These are usually made by those looking to contort things for the benefit of their own organization (read camel makers). Open, transparent communication is critical for effective collaborations. Yes, that sometimes means having hard discussions within the committee, which builds far more trust than side conversations going on around the meeting.
Third, no matter how committed you may be to the collaborative goal, you also have to keep your organizational limits in mind. Sometimes, the answer simply has to be no . . . to continuing the collaborative effort if everyone isn’t playing by the same rule book . . . to walking down a path that may look good on paper but isn’t sustainable in practice . . . to agreeing to an effort that will divert you from more important strategic goals, just so you can look like a “team player.”
The impact that can come from a strong collaborative effort is too important for you to settle for anything else. Besides, there are enough camels out there.