The nonprofit sector uses the word “collaboration” often, and in worshipful tones, but what happens in practice is usually more transactional than transformational.
It often goes like this: If you give us something that benefits our program, we would be happy to return the favor for your program. Backs are mutually scratched. But each organization essentially continues on its own path, largely unaffected by the partnership.
Collaboration that builds organizational capacity, moves people to take part, and propels the sector forward, by contrast, involves true co-creation and uses the unique strengths of each partner as building blocks. This kind of collaboration has the potential to be transformational on both an individual and an organizational level.
So how do you get it right? That’s something we have been working hard to figure out at 92Y’s Belfer Center for Innovation and Social Impact, working on projects like GivingTuesday, 7 Days of Genius, and Women inPower. Of course, we’ve had our share of misses—partnerships that don’t get beyond swapping logos and signing off on press releases—but the ones that really work and we think of as successful share core principles. Here are some of our guiding principles:
We work with people we respect and trust (and we hope it is mutual). Collaboration literally means working together, and our partnerships mostly start on a human rather than an organizational level. People interact, not budgets or mission statements.
We create something entirely new together (initiative, concept, movement, story, mission). #GivingTuesday (an annual day of giving that has fueled millions of dollars in donations, and participation from individuals and organizations worldwide) was the result of collaboration fueled and shaped by friends and partners in the philanthropic world and beyond, all in the spirit of respect and trust. We invited ideas, wisdom, creative thinking, and constructive criticism, and in the process, created ambassadors for the movement who felt accountable for it and invested in it, because they helped to create it.
We embrace risk as an essential part of collaboration, while striving to meet and exceed goals; we get it wrong, and we get back on track. Falling flat is inevitable when you’re truly embracing risk and experimenting in new ways. If you aren’t failing sometimes, in fact, it’s likely a sign that you aren’t being truly bold (or you’re just truly blessed). We’ve had projects that didn’t blossom as we’d hoped; collaborations that got mired in bureaucracy before they could fly; ideas we believed in that we failed to find partnership for; collaborative opportunities that, in hindsight, we could have further maximized or ones we left lying on the table. After the conclusion of an initiative or at the conclusion of a cycle of one, we ask ourselves the same questions: As we build the next thing, what would we replicate? What would we eliminate? What would we lean in on harder? What would we keep but modify? In this way, every idea builds on the best practices, lessons, and, yes, failures of the ones that came before. This willingness to fall flat with humility, humor, and resilience, and to make the next idea better as a result, is important for any institution truly committed to innovation or creative collaboration.
We adopt a spirit of generosity, humility, humor, experimentation, and intellectual curiosity. One of the unexpected outcomes of #GivingTuesday has been the growth of grassroots civic campaigns that have formed in towns, cities, and states across the country; they provide many and varied examples of creational collaboration. People, organizations, local governments, schools, houses of worship, and local businesses come together in a celebration of civic pride, common values, and support for one other and their communities. In this spirit, we've seen competitive organizations coming together for the first time to create not simply financial solicitations, but entirely new ways of telling the stories of why their missions matter. We see the same thing happening—manifesting in entirely unique ways, but guided by the same philosophy—all over the world.
We share lessons, best practices, and data with as broad a network as possible. #GivingTuesday began as a creative collaboration, and it continues to function as one, because the ever-growing community acts as both a global and a hyper-local feedback loop. The community openly shares and adopts best practices and great ideas, then change, adapt, and share again, increasing the capacity of the movement itself and the people and organizations within it.
We let go of the need to retain complete control of brand or narrative. With #GivingTuesday, we were all experimenting with a new model that would invite others to celebrate giving in whatever way made the most sense for them, using input from lots of sources and constant feedback and iteration to get there. Based on some of that input, we decided not to brand it with our organization's name or logo, but to let it live as an open-source movement that individuals and organizations could adapt, scale, or reinvent in more ways that we could ever have thought of ourselves. It became #GivingShoesDay, #GivingViewsDay, #GivingBlueDay; it became #undiaparadar in Spain and Latin America and #MardiJeDonne in Quebec and #SheddryVtornik in Russia. This kind of communal ownership made #GivingTuesday a movement from the beginning. Individuals and organizations held the keys, and spread it through networks of networks—a consistently evolving narrative created by many voices.
Happily, we are seeing a mindset shift in the sector toward this kind of transformational way of working together, and we should aspire to an exponential, not incremental, increase in creational collaboration. Technology has made it easier than ever to share information, connect with people both far away and right next door, and learn from each other. We have a tremendous opportunity to work together to create movements with many leaders, movements that make us and our organizations better and stronger and that move the needle on the mission we all share: solving the world's problems.