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Are You Collaborating On Solid Ground?

By Amy Farley

You cannot realize social transformation in a vacuum. It requires looking outside yourself and beyond your organization’s walls, seeking opportunities to collaborate intentionally both with others you know well and with “unlikely suspects.” As we all know, this is easier said than done.

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Collaborative efforts can take a variety of forms, but in this post I want to discuss the type of collaboration that involves the strategic and deliberate alignment of a diverse group of stakeholders to collectively pursue significant, lasting change at the community level. Many leaders in the social sector have recently started referring to this concept as “collective impact.”

Through our 15 years of partnering with social sector leaders, we have seen some efforts achieve soaring success through such intentional collaboration. We have also seen some frustrating failures. Both the successes and the failures have revealed the importance of (1) first evaluating the environment to determine whether a strong opportunity for collaboration truly exists and (2) building a robust foundation to support the collaborative effort.

Evaluating the Environment

In evaluating the environment to determine whether an opportunity for intentional collaboration exists, we encourage groups to reflect on the alignment of three factors:

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  • Need: Is there an opportunity to advance progress toward tackling a social problem at the magnitude it exists that can be better realized by bringing diverse players together?
  • Interest: Is there a belief among key stakeholders that collaboration will be valuable? And, among these players, is there a desire to collaborate?
  • Assets: Do these key stakeholders have – or have access to – a diversity of skills and resources that when brought together can realize significant progress towards tackling a social problem?

Building a Solid Foundation

Based on our work and research, we have discerned that collaborative efforts that realize dramatic results generally have spent time honing seven key building blocks:

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  1. Definition of Success & Supporting Strategies: collective agreement exists around a clearly articulated goal and set of supporting strategies.
  2. Measures of Success: common measures for evaluation are tied to the clear definition of success.
  3. Intentional Culture: values and behaviors are agreed upon and embraced.
  4. Structure & Governance: clear roles, responsibilities, decision-making processes, and accountability structures exist.
  5. Engagement of Key Stakeholders: constant evaluation of whether the right mixture of stakeholders is both involved and committed to the definition of success and strategies.
  6. Strategic Communication: communication within the partnership and with external audiences is well planned and executed.
  7. Qualitative & Quantitative Data Inform Experimentation, Learning & Evolution: Both types of data are tracked and used consistently across partners to measure success and to continuously experiment, learn and evolve.

These building blocks align well with the findings of other groups that have studied collaboration – see, for example, FSG’s research and writing around “collective impact.” However, there are several building blocks that we have seen other efforts under-emphasize, which I want to highlight here:

  • Intentional Culture: culture dictates what is possible. The best strategy will quickly crumble if it does not align with the group’s culture. Stakeholders who wish to work in enduring and effective collaboration, must come together with their colleagues and build a solid, shared cultural foundation by fostering personal connections and trust among themselves.  By so doing, their varied perspectives and backgrounds can become assets for one another instead of barriers to progress.
  • Learning & Adaptation: we have purposefully split measurement into two separate building blocks. “Measures of Success” focuses on ensuring that clear and common measures of success are used across the work. “Qualitative & Quantitative Data Inform Experimentation, Learning & Evolution” acknowledges that these measures will require capturing and analyzing multiple forms of data and that transformational change will only come about when groups then use that data to continually experiment, learn and evolve. It is not enough to just capture the data but it must be used to really assess what is and is not working. It must be normal and encouraged to change things based on new information and data.
  •  Structure & Governance: there is no one “right” structure for a collaborative effort. Every community has its own unique mix of organizations and resources. Thus, we find it helpful to talk structure and governance holistically: who will make decisions, what roles are people playing, who is providing strategic guidance vs. who is involved in implementation? These questions must be clearly answered in order for everyone to work effectively together.
  • Engagement of Key Stakeholders: as Bill Shore mentions in Sharing Our Growth: Margaret Mead Was Wrong, Actually changing the world takes a lot more than a small group.” For example, the University of Oregon’s 90 by 30 effort to reduce child abuse in Lane County highlights community engagement as a critical success factor for their initiative, citing that in order to succeed they must define a role for every person and group in Lane County.

We have seen that each of these building blocks can, if managed well, contribute to enabling successful collaboration or, if overlooked, can stand in the way of progress. In the end, we encourage our partners to use these building blocks as a rough guide rather than a foolproof recipe. We continue to refine our thinking about these factors each time we partner with collaborative efforts. And we continue to challenge ourselves around what might be missing or what could be improved. For example, I’ve been thinking about financial sustainability recently: where should it fit into the building blocks? Is it its own thing, or do you accomplish it by having the right stakeholders engaged and the right governance structures in place? Can an initial infusion of support be enough to change the way people do their work so that long-term financial sustainability becomes about how people do their work rather than finding funding for another initiative?

What questions or thoughts do these building blocks raise for you?

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Amy Farley

About Amy Farley

In her role as Director, Amy Farley leads client relationships and engagements by facilitating diverse leadership teams in bold decision making and supporting the execution of transformational new ideas. Amy has a unique blend of business, nonprofit, and foundation experience, with a proven record of leading cross-functional teams and driving creative solutions that have delivered stronger collective solutions while increasing revenue and organizational growth. See Amy's full bio.

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