Playing Baseball with Tennis Rackets: What’s Not Being Included in Our Collaborative Meetings

Nonprofits need to share information and resources.

The word “collaboration” is often used as a way to outline how resources can be used more effectively.  Recently the word has been used to outline how organizations can work to fight against the challenging economy.  Giving a presentation yesterday, I discussed the word “collaboration” and asked participants what it meant to them.  Words centered primarily on collaborating to share information or coming together to obtain a funding opportunity, primarily a grant.  When I asked any of them whether they brought a list of assets or an outline of their finances to a meeting of potential collaborators, the room seemed irked as if such an idea was rude or disrespectful.  In addition, I was remembering a recent discussion with a nonprofit consultant who was discussing a challenge in facilitating a merger and cited that the potential merger partners got along well when discussing the cultures of the two organizations but when the work came on aligning assets and resources, the talks broke down.  The consultant said that this part of the discussion the parties seemed ill-equipped to proceed with. 

My opinion is that much of the discussion in the nonprofit sector when it comes to collaboration often concentrates on communicating and coordinating, or creating harmony between the parties.  There can be great success at creating harmony, but often times being good at harmony does not get the collaboration to the next level or halts a merger discussion.  Popular sentiments on collaboration state that the essence of a true collaboration is that two parties can get farther by coming together than they can apart or that 1 + 1 equals more than 2.  I am sure that many would argue that advancing harmony together gets you more than two, but I might contend that it often doesn’t get you much farther.  To me, if you are not bringing to the table from an early point the energy of sharing actual resources you are essentially bringing tennis rackets to a baseball game.

Unfortunately, much of the recent writing on collaboration does not move much farther than the traditional views on the harmony view of collaboration.  Since the financial crisis hit in fall of 2008, over two dozen books have hit the market and the two most recent books are written by two of the foremost thought leaders on nonprofit partnerships and collaborations.

The first book is by Tom Wolff, a community psychologist, who gives us The Power of Collaborative Solutions.  The book attempts to outline key principles and theories for those looking to make a change. Wolff states, “Collaborative processes are the key to addressing the critical challenges that confront our communities, our states and our nation in the new millennium. Through collaboration, individuals, organizations and communities become empowered to impact the world around them. Our work exemplifies the power of these processes.”  Wolf continues to state that “our helping systems are failing us and we have serious problems with traditional community problem-solving methods that are ineffective and create pain, waste, and dysfunction in our communities.” 

The second book is Leading Across Boundaries by a management consultant Russell Linden, and is a follow up to his earlier book entitled Working Across Boundaries, about managers working together within an organization.  Leading Across Boundaries offers examples of collaborations–both successful ventures and those that have failed.  The book claims that “these examples can help leaders anticipate, prevent, and deal with the most vexing challenges to collaboration.”  Linden states on collaboration that “there is simply no other effective way to address the most pressing issues facing our communities and nation”.

The following situation outlines the problem I have with conventional collaborative thinking. I was working with a group of nine human service agencies who became increasingly motivated in developing more effective avenues to collaborate among themselves.  They had already been meeting, in some shape or form, for nearly a decade.  Recently, and probably more of a reason for the group coming on stronger as of late, they wanted more funding for support staff, and had a specific potential funding opportunity in mind.  As I facilitated the meeting, everyone stated the popular words relating to collaboration: communication, understanding, partnership and networking.  When asked about strategies or concrete examples that showcased how this was done, there were very few examples for their years of meeting.  I then embarked on an exercise that would have each “member” organization list all of their resources or assets on index cards and tape them to the wall.  These resources should include people, buildings, materials, expertise and other concrete resources.  The wall quickly filled up with index cards.  I then asked each person to put initials on the index cards of resources that they needed to help their organization and the collaboration move to the next level.  When the activity was completed, the initial request for $800,000 was shrunk to just under $100,000.  Between them they had over 150 social work staff serving essentially the same geographic area.  Many of the clients of the participating members of the collaboration had 2 to 3 social workers between them.  Since a majority of organizational funding is often seen in staffing, the sharing of people and staff can be a good start to real collaboration.

The word “collaboration” is a term that is much used in the nonprofit sector.  It is a word that can showcase organizational effectiveness, toward community reach and most times used to make the case for obtaining new resources.  Unfortunately there are very little resources that are presented in collaborative meetings that help organizations get to the very root of what collaboration needs.  In the books of Wolff and Linden, both authors discuss two different sides of collaboration.  Where Wolff discusses the cultural and psychological aspects behind collaboration, Linden offers examples of collaboration with tools on organizing the community partners.  What each author misses is what are the root and lasting reasons for collaborating.  The group in Chicago came together because they wanted to share and economize.  Essentially, Wolff gets them a shrink’s chair and Linden gets them a bus schedule. Neither of these meets the needs.  How is it that not one of the books mentions strategies to re-allocate finances or sharing resources?  Wolff and Linden have not strayed far from the traditional discussion of collaboration and unfortunately from my view the sector has not advanced much farther.  There is a reason that mergers are not successful and one of the main reasons is that the sharing or actual resources, those that impact the balance sheet, are small in comparison to the latter.

To meet the needs of the sector, real collaboration is needed and an outpouring of best practices on how the sharing of real resources is happening.  While the sharing of information and networking are important, organizations will not be able to advance if an exchange of resources is not a part of the relationship. To assist in accomplishing this, authors, academia and others will have to provide thought and guidance on how successful collaboration will both align organization goals and resources.  Unfortunately, the above authors and others in the conventional collaborative mode are not providing this direction.

Read more stories by John Brothers.

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  • BY Florence "Flo" Green

    ON April 26, 2010 03:59 PM

    I agree to so many of the points you make, John, in your article on collaboration.  My experience from 40 years in the nonprofit community is that most groups do not really understand the serious commitment that collaboration entails.  What most groups means when they use the work collaboration is really some kind of networking or coordination of activities.  Absolutely a good thing to do, but not really collaborating.

    I would add to your discussion about sharing resources that in a “real”  collaboration the resources are not necessarily equally shared or equally received.  Although it is important that all partners are equal in terms of decision-making and inclusion, the solution and resource distribution may benefit some partners more than others because it is what is needed to best solve the problem the collaboration was established to address. 

    In one of my workshops many years ago, as the participants were engaged in a small group exercise to determine how resources would be shared and then allocated one of the participants sighed and said in a loud whisper, “Boy, you have to be a grown up to do this.”  Perhaps we should add that you also have to view the resources not as yours but as belonging to the larger collaboration.

    Not an easy task for most of us.

    Flo Green, Vice President
    IdeaEncore Network

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