Commentary: Principles of Collaboration

Collaboration has become one of the trendiest ideas in the nonprofit world. Donors and grantmakers are increasingly demanding it, and the charities are responding accordingly. Generally speaking, this is a good thing.

A strong and robust collaborative partnership leads to greater organizational efficiencies and increased effectiveness, and it can accelerate the speed of social and/or systems change. The problem is that too many efforts at collaboration are anything but strong and robust. Donors and grantmakers have put so much pressure on charities to collaborate that partnerships are now being formed simply to relieve that pressure.

The problem is that although a good collaborative partnership can lead to better outcomes, a bad collaboration isn’t just benign: A poorly constructed collaboration can actually hinder a community’s ability to achieve its goals.

Morten Hansen, a management professor at the University of California-Berkeley, conducted a comprehensive study on collaborations. He spent 15 years examining how different teams work with each other to achieve a shared goal. Hansen said that the greatest surprise in his research was the realization that bad collaboration can lead to far worse outcomes than if the partners simply chose not to collaborate at all.

For example, poorly structured partnerships between project teams can overwhelm schedules with unproductive meetings, distract the teams from focusing on their core missions and create cloudy lines of accountability that actually result in less work getting done. A poorly conceived collaboration can make things worse than if the partners had simply tried to work by themselves and failed to achieve their own goal. There is significant research that suggests society is often better off if two organizations choose to go their own way rather than work together in a poorly constructed partnership.

Of course, just as a bad marriage should not cause a person to give up on the promise of love, the possibility of a bad partnership is not a good reason for an organization to decline to collaborate. The rewards of a good partnership are simply too great to ignore.

In my many years of working in the world of philanthropy, I’ve helped facilitate numerous collaborations between charities. One thing has become clear to me: Similar to a marriage, perhaps 80 percent of the likelihood of a collaboration’s success can be traced directly to selecting the right partner in the first place. The challenge is to identify what constitutes the “right” partner.

In the case of my marriage, I chose someone incredibly determined, remarkably kind and absolutely gorgeous. Of course, if you’ve met my lovely wife, Cari, you’re laughing out loud right now at the idea that I chose her. It was sheer dumb luck that my “collaborative partner” chose me. Thankfully, charities don’t have to search for a four-leaf clover before building a collaboration. There are three principles an organization can rely on to be more deliberate when selecting a collaborative partner.

First, the partners need to have a shared or complementary vision. Everyone involved must have their own clear vision of what defines success for the collaborative effort, and those individual visions must be in harmony with one another. It’s easiest when that vision is the same. For instance, a public school and a church might both envision a safe place for kids to play in the neighborhood. Collaborating to build a playground is obvious and logical. The public school might use the playground on weekdays and the church only during Sunday school, but essentially they have a shared vision for the kids.

It isn’t always as obvious when organizations have different visions. Collaborations can still work between organizations with differing visions of success as long as they complement one another. For instance, a housing charity’s vision might be to ensure that all working families have safe, affordable housing. An economic-development organization’s vision could be to help local businesses thrive.

Their visions are very different, but it makes perfect sense to work together to develop a multi-family housing unit: The housing charity is all about putting working families in affordable homes, and the economic-development organization might be responding to the lack of workforce housing in the community. Although each organization exists for a very different purpose, their visions complement one another and thus make them natural collaborative partners on this particular project.

Second, the partners should have complementary capabilities. If the vision is to develop a vibrant, intergenerational program, it doesn’t make sense for a children’s charity to attempt to collaborate with another youth-serving organization because they have the same skill set: working with kids. A better partner would be an organization that serves senior citizens because it has skills and experiences that complement those of the children’s charity. In a successful collaboration, each partner brings a capability that is both unique among those sitting at the table and critical to achieving the partnership’s goal.

Third, the partners must have shared values. No matter how much two organizations’ visions are in harmony and how complementary their capabilities, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. The likelihood of two partners successfully addressing a challenge depends on their ability to work together under pressure, and how teams react when times get tough is dictated by their values. Do the organizations place a greater value on stewardship or innovation? Do they prioritize teamwork or empower the individual? Are they dedicated to a culture that is honest, open, ethical and fair; or do they focus on impact?

These are all real value statements from some of America’s largest companies. They are not necessarily mutually exclusive, but they do say a lot about what these organizations consider the “right” or “wrong” way to get something done. If you work with a partner whose values are in conflict with yours, you’ll waste a lot of time trying to resolve organizational conflicts about how you’re supposed to deal with one another. When you collaborate with a partner that shares your values, however, you can focus your energy exclusively on getting the work done.

Bret Bicoy is president and CEO of the Door County Community Foundation. Contact him at [email protected].