Collaboration: A Generosity of Spirit

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In the last issue of the Nonprofit Quarterly we profiled Gale Walker, an activist and entrepreneur who is in the process of developing a community planning and development mechanism in one of the poorest neighborhoods in San Diego (“I am the Brush,” July 2001). She described as one of the greatest assets of this process “the light of hope and creativity that illuminates people from within—and is theirs exclusively. The energy gathers around like to a magnet when you build the vision together.” She believes that this energy evaporates when you plan things for people instead of with them.
This quality of seeing others as essential honored partners in an effort to envision and create a better future is the soul of great collaboration.

Collaboration begins when various participants in a system identify shared interests. These participants develop a dialogue:

  • to define current reality in their area of shared interest and determine where change is needed,
  • to search out the possibilities in the situation, and
  • to imagine and co-create a different future, planning and implementing together.

Effective collaborative relationships are relatively long-term, recreating themselves over time or one project after another, while including other players along the way. This eventually creates a broad community of practice capable of engendering change at many different levels.

In our definition, the collaborative organization partners not only with other organizations, but with its constituents, more broadly with its many stakeholders, with its staff and at the board level.

Here are some general reasons.

Many sets of eyes and ears are needed to keep up with, interpret and determine the relevance of the information available in increasing abundance to our organizations.

The pace of change (political, economic, social, and technological) is increasing at a faster rate than ever before. This calls for greater fluidity and a greater range of strengths and skills if we are to remain effective.

Collaborations offer increased power to effect change, contributing to critical mass.

Our communities are more diverse; for our programs to remain responsive to the community as well as the individuals it encompasses, we must be in constant dialogue with the people we serve and the other institutions that also touch their lives.

In order to be effective, we need the engagement of all of those who care about the people and communities we work in.

Rosabeth Moss Kanter writes in “The Value of Partnering,” in World Class Leaders, “Generating new ideas challenges boundaries. Innovations grow out of unexpected, surprising, and even irreverent mental connections. Developing them requires collaborations and adjustments by many parts of organizations and the networks surrounding them. Entrepreneurial opportunities do not respect territories; they do not present themselves in the boxes established on organizational charts. The more rigid the walls… the less likely it is that people will venture out of their boxes to try something new. It is up to… leaders to encourage others to open their minds and tap the power of partnering within organizations as well as across them.”

As we look at the question of why and how to create effective collaboration, it brings up the question of why we are currently organized as separate organizations in the way that we are. Organizations are human constructs and we have some control over the way we conceptualize them as closed or open systems. The boundaries we draw around organizations may be useful in containing a body of work being done for a particular constituency, but what happens when the protection of our borders begins to limit the possibility of our being accurately focused, effective and powerful on behalf of our constituents?

In Gareth Morgan’s book, Images of Organization,1 we are offered a larger view of this question. He wrote:

“Organizations, like organisms, are not really discreet entities, even though it may be convenient to think of them as such. They do not live in isolation and are not self-sufficient. Rather, they exist as elements in a complex ecosystem.

“Many biologists now believe that it is the whole ecosystem that evolves and that the process of evolution can really be understood only at the level of the total ecology. This has important implications because it suggests that organizations do not evolve by adapting to environmental changes or as a result of these changes selecting the organisms that are to survive. Rather it suggests that evolution is always evolution of a pattern of relations embracing organisms and their environments. It is the pattern, not just the separate units comprising this pattern that evolves. Or as Kenneth Boulding has put it, evolution involves the ‘survival of the fitting,’ not just the survival of the fittest.

“Organizations and their environments are engaged in a pattern of co-creation, where each produces the other. Just as in nature, where the environment of an organism is composed of other organisms, organizational environments are in large measure composed of other organizations. Once we recognize this, it becomes clear that organizations are in principle able to influence the nature of their environment. They can play an active role in shaping their future, especially when acting in concert with other organizations. Environments then become in some measure negotiated environments rather than independent external forces.”

First know and trust yourself. From an organizational point of view, it is important to understand and recommit to your primary constituency, mission, and purpose before approaching another organization to collaborate. As an individual, it is important to maintain a long-term future focus. Integrity and self-reflection are the name of the game. These attributes help you to sustain even when conflicts arise. Effective collaborations will humble you again and again even while they lend you power.

Think systematically. Know the role you play and wish to play within the larger systems to which you or your organization belongs. Take leadership in opening the conversation. You should be clear about your priorities and the kind of change you want to help create, while remaining open to the perspectives and ideas of others who share your interest in the situation.

Seek common ground around development of a future all desire. Ask yourself: “Who’s not at the table?” Particularly ask this question with regard to those systematically excluded from dialogue.
Know your partners. To what extent do you have common values and intentions? The answer to this question should guide the breadth and depth of activities on which you should collaborate. Many start with smaller scale, shorter-term collaborations and move to more depth and breadth as the relationship matures.

Understand the importance of such basics as honesty, dependability, and courage in developing collaborations that matter. Judge yourself and your partners by the same standards. Understand the importance of relationships in sustaining and ex-panding collaborations and pushing them to greater effectiveness.

Use your desired “future state” as the magnet that holds you together and moves you forward. Start where you want to end—develop your vision for the future state together and share the power and responsibility for the work required to implement your vision. When people participate in developing a vision they are more likely to wish to actively participate.

Keep your processes open to participation even once the visioning is done. Make and keep commitments. Coalitions will often depend upon participants’ willingness to go over and above the call of duty to get done what is necessary. Often each will take a piece of the whole. But either it will act like a house of cards with undone segments of work eventually undoing the whole effort, or power and authority eventually will revert to those that do the work. This can result in the narrowing of leadership and lessening of any sense of shared ownership.

Share information actively and often. Trust—that basic ingredient of good sustained collaboration—is threatened when people believe that information necessary for being an empowered member of the collaborative is being kept from them.

Periodically evaluate your progress and outcomes together and talk and work continually to improve them. Periodically question your assumptions.

Build incremental agreements among collaborators along the way based on what you are learning through practice. You may start out with a purpose or vision that is eventually too limiting or too grandiose or just plain misdirected. Keep revisiting the vision to determine if it has changed at all considering what you have learned along the way.

Be demonstrably grateful to one another for your common commitment to a better future. Be generous to partners. One of the very best indicators of a truly collaborative community is that people dedicate themselves to promoting others to funders for doing good work. For some reason this always seems to translate into more money for all.

Be ready to make mistakes as you cross boundaries of organization, rank, function, culture, class and sector. Work through the fallout openly so that all can learn what works and what doesn’t in the situation. Challenge the honest mistakes of others but be patient with them as well.

Listen more than talk, but talk openly. Boards should be involved in exploring, initiating, maintaining, and evaluating the value of collaborations. See the article by David Renz on page 49.

1. Morgan, Gareth. 1998. Images of Organization. San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers.
2. In publishing this article, we pay tribute to a collaborator of ours, State Street Corporation. We first developed much of this material for its fourth annual “Getting Down to Business” forum that was presented in November 2000 to State Street grantees in five different locations across the United States and Canada.