On Collaboration


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We all know collaboration is at the heart of making positive change in society. We know this primarily because we tell one another it must be true. We tell ourselves that the range and depth of change needed to improve our communities can only be accomplished by working together. We deploy maxims like “no one can go it alone.” We are so convinced that collaboration must permeate everything we do that funders now demand it as a matter of course.

Sometimes we proclaim collaboration is a great way to reduce costs or duplication, despite the lack of comprehensive evidence that this is true. We grab onto new versions of collaboration like “collective impact.” It is almost as if individual effort has become devalued in and of itself.

But is collaboration the answer we keep telling ourselves it is? Here’s a perspective offered by Todd Cohen who blogs for Inside Philanthropy, which is published by The Philanthropy Journal.[1]

Collaboration has to be one of the most bloated, overworked and misunderstood buzzwords in the charitable marketplace.

Funders and donors preach and demand it. Trade groups and consultants peddle it. And nonprofits, nodding to the sermonizing of their funders and donors, pay endless lip service to it.

Sadly, far too few of any of them actually practice it or even know what it is or what it takes to make it work.

Collaboration sounds great in theory.

But in practice, it can prove to be slippery, complicated, risky and sometimes plain unworkable.

Ideology versus Capacity
One of the largest barriers to collaboration is the wide gap between the ideology of collaboration and the resources required to support it. Despite the fact that collaboration is not an end in and of itself and that it is not always necessary, the non-profit sector has persuaded itself to believe that it is fundamental to nearly everything it does. Funders, in particular, espouse the need for it in their proposal calls or granting applications. It’s just how things are suppose to be.

The simple truth is that the resourcing of collaboration is given short shrift by too many funders and under-estimated by too many non-profit leaders. One can argue funders lack the resources to optimally support collaborative efforts, but that doesn’t appear to stop the demand for collaboration. Concurrently, non-profit agencies have bought into the ideology and because they feel vulnerable to funding, they agree to undertake efforts they lack the infrastructure and capacity to do.

It is a cycle of dysfunction that all parties perpetuate. All too often the result is underfunded collaborations that cannot achieve their potential or that fail. Or the language of collaboration is used to pitch ventures that are packaged as collaborative but in actuality are more representative of cooperation or coordination, which are less resource intensive.

Survival versus Mutual Gain
Non-profit executives often muse about how they are expected to collaborate with one another on the one hand and also compete for limited resources in the funding market place and of course for donors and volunteers. Not all non-profits are struggling to survive, but there is sufficient research to suggest that many are merely subsisting. By that I mean they are balancing their books on the backs of staff that are not paid what they are worth and often labor on without compensation increases, much less adequate benefits. Infrastructure necessities are set aside for the sake of a balanced budget or at least minimal deficits.

The irony is that while many non-profits struggle to subsist or survive due to thin, flat, incomplete, and sporadic funding, funders keep a worrisome eye on the bottom lines of the organizations they under-fund. The expectation is that while given insufficient funds to operate effectively, agencies that go into the red are viewed as risky business. On the other hand, there are funders that are equally averse to stronger organizations having “too much” money in the bank for a rainy day. It’s as if the right financial state for non-profits to be on the edge of instability.

Here’s Less Funding, Now Do More
The dichotomy is this: while non-profits are required to collaborate and work to achieve win-wins for the community they serve, they are consistently and pervasively under-valued by those who resource them. In all the years I have consulted to non-profits of all shapes and sizes, I can’t recall seeing a non-profit whose deficit could be simply attributed to bad management nor have I experienced clients whose savings accounts (i.e. reserves) betrayed their missions.

This observation does not mean I think funders and donors have unlimited funds. Of course there are tough decisions to make. What I am suggesting is that the common decision to just expect more from non-profits while giving them less to work with is at best a misguided decision or, sadly, disrespectful.

De-Bunking Mythologies
Often all of us operate with some degree of allegiance to a mythology that collaboration will save money, cut out inefficiencies and stretch limited dollars. Many seem to just accept the facile notion that the answer to tight funding is to rid ourselves of duplicate services. We don’t think this way when it comes to the private sector, however, where in reality we depend on choice and, subsequently duplicate services. As well, we do not see funders consolidating into fewer organizations. Why is that?

Truth is that collaboration costs money and in many instances there are no substantive, if any, savings afforded by a collaborative effort. Collaboration, I propose, offers the potential of having more impact much more than cutting costs. Those who think mergers are the solution appear to forget or ignore that mergers also have substantive costs which no one cares to fund; as well, they create opportunity losses, and can result in fewer services or decreased quality than existed previously.

Backend consolidations are no panacea either. As the CEO of an good sized human service agency, I have been advised by anti-duplication advocates that it would be more efficient if we combined our finance or HR functions with other organizations or if we provided such services to smaller organizations. I am always perplexed how many offer such advice without any understanding of how we operate.

Integrating financial operations, for example, involves much more than the technical aspects of doing so. The respective cultures, mindsets, values, and approaches to stewardship all factor into the picture. Invariably, the gain in efficiency that might be – and I stress “might be” – brought about will also include the loss of business processes and access to prompt, relevant data that is possible when one controls one’s own financial matters and tools.

Besides, if it is such a good thing for non-profits, why don’t funders consolidate their backends? Why don’t corporations that work in the same industry integrate their finance teams, their HR processes, and so forth? How come Apple and Microsoft don’t consolidate their back ends? What about utility companies? How about one big finance team for all the oil companies?

How come when voices rise up to suggest non-profits should be more like businesses, they wish to apply rules of engagement to non-profits that businesses would not consider?

Innovative Collaboration
Effective collaboration is rich ground for innovation. There have been, and still are, many conversations across the non-profit sector about the need for transformation. Many suggest, and I agree, that what has been done for so long is not working to the extent that we want it to.

What is not clear is who the “we” is. Is it just the non-profit sector? Just agencies? Is it just the non-profit sector that is failing to achieve the impact the community requires and deserves? Non-profit leaders are talking about how what we are doing is not achieving the results we need to achieve. A critic of my organization told me that we aren’t doing enough to house the homeless because there are still homeless people.

This year we will house 240 homeless people through our participation in the Housing First program. We house many more who do not qualify for Housing First. Is it true that we are not doing enough? Is it my organization’s failure that more homeless people are showing up at our door seeking help? Sensible people would say no it’s not, but for some reason, all too often the community at large acts like it is.

There are many excellent ideas being discussed and numerous organizations in my community are re-stating missions and vision statements and articulating new strategies that markedly differentiate where they want to go from what they have been doing. These ideas are often innovative, some are indeed transformative, and I have no doubt they reflect authentic intentions of good people seeking ways to maximize the impact of their work.

Clearly the problems society faces require appropriate cross-sector collaboration more than ever. Poverty, homelessness, violence, abuse, racism, mental illness, addictions, and so on are community problems with complex causation. Some causes are based in the individual and rooted in decisions or actions undertaken by people. In other words, it is true that each person among us bears some measure of responsibility for who they are and what they do.

Some causes are, for the lack of a better word, accidents. This refers to people born with a disability or who experience later in life the onset of a mental illness, or whose lives have been changed for the worse from abuse or violence. Other causes are rooted in the collective, meaning they are structural causes. Racism is an example of this. Collective decisions that result in perpetuating poverty are another.

The promise of collaboration will be small if any of us thinks the responsibility to address social problems can be fixed by human service programs alone. Or that the problems our community faces equates simply to the failings of governments. Or that that a poor economy can be corrected by the corporate sector. The complexity of what we are facing and the interdependency of our lives requires, if not demands, collaborative efforts across the community.

This is the first innovation we need to understand and subscribe to: that the community is accountable for itself and that the various sectors that make up the community are not outside of or above community but creatures of it. This may sound obvious, but it is not how we tend to see things.

To achieve this kind of synergy we need innovative collaboration and in some cases, if not many, new forms of collaboration. Of course we need ideas but all ideas require execution and the transformative call we are making to one another requires transformative practice – new or at least reformed ways of behaving, and this is I believe where the challenge truly lies.

We need collaborations that foster opportunities to identify and prototype new ways of working and that are aptly funded to do so. This means risking more than we seem to want to and overcoming past habits and perceptions to do so. Funders and those they fund need to accept that the creation of new ways of working necessarily means the destruction of what is not working.

As I have written elsewhere, the practice of transformation requires personal change, not just changes to systems or funding criteria or mission statements. Without such personalization of change, we will end up trying to act on new ideas with old and irrelevant processes and protocols. Collaboration will not take place the way we want it to unless accompanied by our ability to change ourselves and at the same time help support the changes of others

Collaboration and Polarization
To solve social problems, we need to stop all the complaining and whining about one another. We need to stop perpetuating adversarial approaches to problem solving and more importantly that kibosh aspirations we all share.

Our political system fails citizens when the default of the ruling and opposition parties is to take opposing views on most things. The human services sector within which I work is often too quick to position itself against something rather than for something. Even worse is when, for example, a government announces actions that have been advocated for years by the human services sector and is met with the next stage of outcries and criticisms for not going far enough or for not getting things quite right.

A local, provincial example: for many years people like me – and I imagine some of you – have wanted the Government of Alberta to recognize that poverty is an issue provincially and then do something constructive about addressing it. Significant efforts have gone into such advocacy. Groups have formed, briefs written, criticisms voiced in the media, money spent, and so forth.

When the Premier of Alberta, Alison Redford, announced in 2012 the government’s intention to undertake a poverty reduction strategy and also to eliminate child poverty within five years, the response of many human service agencies was to criticize the announcement as “not going far enough,” “not having enough details,” and so forth. In such cases, the absence of affirmation was shrill and strident.

Perhaps a more appropriate strategy would be to affirm the intention and voice interest in collaborating with the government to achieve such intentions.

All too often human service agencies and the communities in which they operate fail to work collaboratively and instead spend energy, time, and money on their respective polarizing positions. This is especially true when it comes to social housing, which typically is more dense in inner cities and low income neighborhoods. Residents who express concern about the density and impact of such housing on their community are labeled as suffering from NIMBY-ism, as if their concerns are unfounded, uncaring, and irresponsible.

On the other hand, community members see social housing groups as outsiders who care only about what they wish to build for their clients and devoid of any regard for their neighbours. In reality, neither perspective is likely true, but that is the environment we seem to prefer to perpetuate – all of us.

Imagine, if you would, how things might be different if the community took charge of the collective problems and issues it faces and residents, institutions, funders, service providers, businesses, and faith communities came together to figure out how to tackle issues like poverty, mental illness, homelessness and so on?

That’s about collaboration, right?

Coming soon: Drivers of Collaboration

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Mark Holmgren
Mark Holmgren Consulting
Mark Holmgren is committed to helping non profit organizations and local governments build capacities for new visions. Mark does this through the provision of custom designed strategic services that fit an organization's culture as well as its aspirations.


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