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Recently, I was asked to speak about collaboration in the nonprofit world:  what it is, why it’s important; what makes it work and what makes it fail.  That got me thinking. 

As a start, I looked up “collaboration” in the dictionary.  Its two definitions amused me.  Collaboration is first defined as “the act of working together with one or more people in order to achieve something”; and second, as “the betrayal of others by working with an enemy, especially an occupying force.”

Obviously, I want to focus more on the first definition – but isn’t it true that so often, when we dip our toes gingerly into the collaboration pool, often pushed to the edge of the water by our funders, we do so from a position of reluctance, doubt, or even fear.  We clutch our resources to our chests, and find ourselves questioning the motives of others.  So often, well-intentioned efforts to collaborate go south into feelings of betrayal and even enmity.  This, of course, drowns any chance of success.

So, before we talk about how to avoid the phenomenon of circling the wagons and firing inward, let’s talk about what collaboration isn’t.

It’s not just sharing information or going to the same meetings, or endorsing the same legislation, or moving in the same circles.

It’s not a weekend retreat where we navigate a ropes course or fall backward into each other’s arms to learn trust.

True collaboration is deliberate, thoughtful, outcome-focused and has measurable results. 
It’s not just working hard, it’s working effectively together to achieve a larger goal.

Collaboration works when people and organizations are united around a common vision,
and inspired to achieve it.  As ancient a source as the Book of Proverbs says, “without vision, the people fail.”  The same is true for collaborations.  You need a BHAG – A Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal – as your north star.

Collaborations work when partners are committed to measuring progress against agreed-upon metrics.  How will we know we’re succeeding?  What quantifiable results – hard facts and figures – can we show our stakeholders, so they know we’re moving the needle in the right direction?

Successful collaborations include partners who keep their eye on the ball; who stay focused not only on the group’s larger vision and goals, but on preserving and strengthening the core.  The group needs to be strong enough to bring on new partners who are on the same page, and strong enough to jettison those who threaten to derail the effort, including by advancing their own agenda at the expense of the greater good.

Effective collaborative partners are also willing to take the risk of forging alliances with untraditional and unfamiliar partners – taking the time to learn each other’s strange new language.

None of this is easy:  Baseball great Casey Stengel was right in noting that, “Getting the players is easy. Getting 'em to play together; that’s the hard part.”  It takes time, and dedicated effort.

Every effective collaboration also needs a robust, carefully crafted communications plan that educates stakeholders about progress – because you can have the most flawless vision, and execute it perfectly, at the appropriate pace…but if you’re not communicating to the folks you need to support your work, and come along with you, you’ll fail.

And let’s talk about failure.  Collaborations fail when ego takes precedence over achieving common goals – because effective collaborations require you to check your organization’s ego, and sometimes your own personal ego, at the door.

Because collaborations also fail when partners are more concerned about getting credit than getting things done.  As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn’t matter who gets the credit.”  There is a role for everyone to play in advancing visionary goals.  Worry less about your own piece of the pie and focus more on baking a bigger pie.

Collaboration also fails when partners worry too much about getting along, rather than getting ahead; when they’re more concerned about harmony among the group and not offending anyone by disagreeing, or asking hard questions, than they are about their larger goals.

Just as you have to break eggs to get an omelet, collaborative partners have to question and criticize – and as long as you do it respectfully, keeping your eye on the ultimate goal, there’s nothing wrong with it.  “Politeness is the poison of collaboration,” said Polaroid Corporation founder Edwin Land.  But keep it civil:  Gang up on the problem, not each other.

There are so many examples of successful collaborations in Montana.  Every day in Missoula, for example, nonprofits, public employees, faith organizations, business people, donors and local volunteers work together in different collaborations to tackle homelessness, hunger, sexual assault, childhood obesity, and much more.  Everyone has a unique position to play, but everyone’s on the same team.

There’s much more progress to be made, of course, but these folks know that collaborating effectively is the only way to get anything accomplished.   It’s the difference between doing good and getting good done.  And increasingly, it’s what donors – from the federal government to foundations to local businesses – expect. 

There’s another benefit to good collaborations:  Along the way, as you work together to advance the common good, you forge deep connections with people and organizations you might not otherwise have met.  Done well, collaboration advances larger, even visionary goals, and creates a ripple effect that can break down barriers and build up partnerships that can change you, your organization, and your community for the better. 

And that’s no April Fool’s joke.  I’m Susan Hay Patrick, CEO of United Way of Missoula County.  Thanks for listening. 

Susan Hay Patrick is chief executive officer of United Way of Missoula County.

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