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Spectrum of Collaboration

Through our experience working with dozens of collaborative efforts, we have seen a spectrum of approaches to collaboration – from learning to coordination to integration – each of which brings positive benefit to the communities touched by these efforts, and each of which has a different degree of impact. Here are three examples of collaboration at each point of the spectrum.

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Several years ago, we set out to answer one powerful question: Why do some social change initiatives achieve transformational results while others only make incremental progress? We studied the anti-malaria movement, the designated driver campaign, the anti-tobacco movement, the revitalization of Harlem, and the anti-hunger movement, among others, to decode the building blocks of transformational efforts. Based on this research, we identified a set of insights about what drives transformation, and we apply these in our work today. These insights underscore the undeniable importance of intentional collaboration in achieving transformational change.

Through our experience working with dozens of collaborative efforts, we have seen a spectrum of approaches to collaboration – from learning to coordination to integration – each of which brings positive benefit to the communities touched by these efforts, and each of which has a different degree of impact.

  • Learning focuses on sharing information and lessons learned among organizations.
  • Coordination focuses on engaging in some level of coordination around their existing programs.
  • Integration focuses on aligning efforts around a clear, shared definition of success and combining assets to unlock new innovations, strategies, and outcomes.

While a collaboration that is focused on learning can typically be established in a matter of months, a more integrated approach can take years to develop. Often groups may start with a focus on learning or coordination and then build over time to integration.

Being explicit about where your collaborative is on this spectrum and whether and how you plan to progress can help your effort have greater impact. Without this intentionality, collaboratives can get stuck in a swirl of process without any tangible outcomes or rush too quickly to integration without putting in the necessary time to build relationships and align on a shared definition of success.

Here are three examples of collaboration at each point of the spectrum.

Newman’s Own Foundation: Focusing on Learning and Evolving to Coordination

Despite their common missions, nonprofits working to increase access to fresh food and nutrition education in underserved communities had limited interaction with each other. When the Newman’s Own Foundation recognized this dynamic among their grantees, the foundation saw an opportunity for expanding their impact. The foundation funded a peer learning cohort for grantees. The cohort started with a focus on building relationships and trust among participants. Then the group shifted toward establishing a shared vision of success and norms and practices such as processes for selecting learning topics, rotating facilitation, and hosting at one another’s sites. From the start, the foundation emphasized a participant-led process, and an evaluation of the cohort found that the participant-led approach allowed cohort members—who may sometimes view one another as competitors for funding—to organically form relationships, build trust, and openly share strengths and challenges. The learning that happened within the cohort also sparked opportunities for coordination among participants. For example, members have introduced one another to funders and formed partnerships to pilot new programs. (Learn more about this cohort in Funding Without Prescription in Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Healthy Food Community of Practice: Coordination to Increase Access to and Consumption of Healthy Food

The Walmart Foundation funded the Healthy Foods Community of Practice to support learning and collaboration among national organizations working to increase access and consumption of healthy foods. The community of practice has a specific focus on reaching Black, Latinx, Indigenous, rural, and elder communities. A three-month design process that engaged diverse stakeholders representing the types of organizations that might participate led to a vision that focuses on four actions that, together, will lead to systemic change: relationship building, learning, action, and field building. By progressing through these actions, the community has the potential to ensure that households that are historically marginalized and/or have experienced food insecurity can access and consume healthier food. The community of practice started in March 2020 — the same time the COVID-19 pandemic caused a spike in food insecurity and severe disruption to these organizations’ ways of working. In the early months of the community of practice, the group focused on building relationships and learning and sharing related to COVID relief. Over time, greater coordination emerged—primarily within six “innovation pods” focused on discrete topics. Today, these pods are taking a variety of actions, such as developing a revised theory of change for nutrition education that is more culturally competent and conducting research to understand how the pandemic impacted benefits enrollment processes and form recommendations moving forward. These “small wins” hold the potential of building to larger, more collective and integrated efforts as the cohort evolves. (See more about this community on their website or in this video.)

AZECA: Integration to Improve Statewide Education

AZECA is an independent statewide collaboration of more than 50 funders, advocates, service providers, and businesses working to create an aligned, high-quality system that ensures all children across Arizona are ready for kindergarten and proficient in reading and math by the end of third grade. Anchored by the Helios Education Foundation, the collaborative had been operating before several years before it moved to integration. After years of relationship building and learning, the collaborative came together to revisit its goals, define each organization’s contribution to the work, establish norms for working together and making decisions, and coordinate partner efforts. The result was transformational: A coordinated strategy, a functioning governance structure, and multi-year funding commitments to the collaborative, which led to several statewide policy wins. These included unfreezing a childcare subsidy waitlist, which led 2,926 families and 5,239 children to gain access to childcare and securing a preschool development grant worth $20 million. (For more about this collaborative, read Cocreating a Change-making Culture in Stanford Social Innovation Review.)

Questions to Consider

As you reflect on where in the spectrum your collaboration sits and whether and how it might evolve, consider these questions:

Learning

  • How are we working to build relationships and trust? What more could we do?
  • What are our goals for learning within this collaborative? What are we hoping to see as a result?
  • How are we engaging participants to help ensure the learning is relevant and timely?
  • How might we put learning into action? What will change as a result?
  • Do we hope for the learning to evolve to coordination within this collaboration? If so, how might that evolution happen?

Coordination

  • What are some “small wins” we might achieve to help build momentum within the collaborative?
  • How do the discrete, coordinated efforts we are considering support the broader vision of the collaborative? What is our vision of success?
  • How are we intentionally building trust and upholding the behaviors and practices will help us achieve our results?
  • Do we hope for coordination to evolve to integration within this collaborative? If so, how might that evolution happen?

Integration

  • What is our shared vision for what we can accomplish together?
  • How are we defining and measure our success?
  • What are the unique assets each participant in the collaborative is bringing? How are we leveraging these assets?
  • What strategies will we use to accomplish our goals?
  • How will we sustain the work overtime?
  • How are we intentionally building trust and upholding the behaviors and practices will help us achieve our results?

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