A few weeks ago, the board chair of a great social enterprise called me in distress. A collaboration he had nurtured was in disarray. He’d gotten ahold of an email that called the executive director and staff at his organization “uncollaborative.”
He and I tried to figure out what was going on. We talked through the history of the collaboration and ultimately spotted what we thought could be the root of the problem: a major power shift. His organization had sprung from the partner years earlier. Both were financially healthy, but the “child” was now bigger and stronger than its “parent.” And the parent was feeling threatened.
Subsequently, he invested time with the chair from the other organization to hear his concerns. Then they each went back and opened up the conversation with their respective executive directors. Ultimately, the organizations resolved their differences and set a positive, “recollaborative” course for the future.
For me, this experience exemplified the fact that power is the secret sauce of nonprofit collaborations. Great collaborations between organizations achieve more than either organization could achieve by itself. But when nonprofit collaborations don’t talk about power and address the implications of power imbalances openly, each party runs the risk of stumbling into (or contributing to) an ugly, counterproductive situation. This is true on an organizational level and a personal level, as relationships naturally grow and evolve over time. Sometimes, organizational and personal issues are one and the same. And sometimes the breakdown is irrevocable, and each party regretfully—and usually wrongly—walks away thinking the other was ultimately too uncollaborative.
The true nature of the problem
Over the past year, I have interviewed dozens of collaborators all over the world, at the request of a group of Australian nonprofits whose leaders wanted to better understand what effective collaboration looked like before working closely together. I observed many effective collaborations. I also observed an assortment of dysfunctional ones, where leaders and others privately confided that they felt the other party was uncollaborative. Based on these interviews and my own experience, I’ve identified three major types of power struggles, where one party (either an organization or individual) implies the other is “bad,” “sad,” or “mad.”
- Bad: The last time someone called me uncollaborative was when I engaged—and enraged—a fellow board member. This person had been perennially late to and ill-prepared for many regular meetings. In this instance, she had not been a full participant in discussions leading up to a hard-won board decision regarding donations from the board members themselves. The rest of the board had put in the legwork to work out differences and come to a consensus on our “give or get” policy, only to have her throw up last-minute objections to our preference for giving. I was angry, and I admit that my words that day were impolite. I asked her why, since she was clearly the richest person on the board, she had donated the least out of all of us.
She did not respond in kind but later emailed the rest of the board members saying I was uncollaborative. What she meant was that I was being “bad” by trying to hold her accountable. The real issue, of course, was power. I was out of line in my remarks, but my sin had not been lack of collaboration, it had been to challenge her power and call out her abuse of it. I insinuated that she was “bad” too. We both could have done better.
- Sad: This is when one party suggests the other isn’t being collaborative because they are somehow less clever—less capable of the sophistication of thought needed to understand or address a particular situation. I served many years on the board of global project, where an executive director urged us to be more collaborative. We weren’t “thinking holistically” or “considering the nuances,” but he didn’t bother to explain. This is another unhelpful assertion of power—the power of knowledge. An organization or individual who urges their partner to consider “systems thinking” without naming the systems or sharing the thinking does nothing to level the playing field. The word is uncollaborative, but the message is “I don’t think you can understand this, so just give me the power.”
- Mad: “You’re being uncollaborative! You need to put your ego to one side,” says one party. Or, “You take things too personally; that’s why you’re difficult to collaborate with.” These kinds of comments aren’t about collaborating; they’re about claiming the power to judge the judgement of another party. I’ve been out as a gay man in the workplace for decades and have lost count of the times when female colleagues or I have been asked to step aside because we are “too sensitive.”
Getting power dynamics right
It doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, many of the successful collaborations I’ve observed seem to get power right from day one. Specifically, ones that:
1. Set clear goals.
Clear, concrete goals empower collaborators to make decisions on their own, whereas when goals are fuzzy, participants need to ask approval from those with power. Take the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), whose goal is to save lives. The organization collaborates with governments, NGOs, and companies across a huge range of cultures, values, and policies. But that single goal keeps things moving. In a conversation I had with Ambassador-at-Large and US Global AIDS Coordinator Deborah L. Birx, she put it this way: “We have made our public-private partnership very intentional and clear: Private sector partners join with us as they share our goal, and there is a clear win for us and for the private sector, and together we bring the best of all members for maximal impact. Across all aspects of the partnerships, there must not only be the shared goal, but clarity and transparency along the pathway of achieving the goal.”
2. Recognize each other’s legitimate needs, which may differ.
Even if collaborators share a common goal for impact, individually they may need funding to support their own agendas or particular needs. It is better to acknowledge and respect these differences than to ignore them. By doing so, each organization can make a distinct case to funders, and together, they can better articulate why the collaborative effort is attractive.
Sometimes, a merger is the answer. One CEO I talked to described a merger between her organization and another this way:
The logic of the merger was to gain power: We could speak with one voice to the government. We had tried to collaborate before, but we were competing for funding. The two CEOs agreed that the merger made so much sense. Neither of us wanted to be “co-CEOs.” We asked that they decide early which of us would get the job and give the other one assurance of pay until the merger, and then six months’ pay afterwards to find another job. We were able to make the merger a success and continue our careers afterwards.
Beware the funder that wants grantees to collaborate around a shared vision, such as better mental health. This may seem like an ideal “clear goal” at the start, but in such cases, the funder holds all the power. Funding collaborative efforts gives philanthropists a birds-eye view of innovations and keeps their options open for the future (allowing them to determine which goals to pursue, which entrepreneurs to back, and when to start building institutions that may be central to systems change). But grantees may find themselves pitted against one another or compelled to double down on fundraising efforts to meet their other needs. Unless the funder can bring in new sources of power—such as government—grantees may not have much to gain and may have a lot to lose.
3. Set clear roles, showing which parties have more power than others, and why.
Clear roles help partners build trust, even if the new roles shift power. In other words, it’s easier for me to act if I know what power I have and what power you have, even if you have much more power. It’s harder when the power is ambiguous. As Dan Berelowitz, founder of Spring Impact and the International Centre for Social Franchising, says: “Social franchising is an idea that works with a great power imbalance, because its roles are clear. Everyone knows where they stand.” Social franchising applies commercial franchising means to social ends. It works because both franchisor and franchisee know their roles, which decisions they can make, and what they cannot do. The clarity is especially important if the franchisor has much more power than the franchisee.
And as Andrew Barnett, director of the UK branch of the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation points out: “[Philanthropists] have all the money and time that we need … We can bring in all kinds of power to propel a collaboration: government, other sectors, citizens. We all have to surrender some power [as well]. It’s critical for funders to be open to alternative perspectives and even to challenge what we may find initially uncomfortable.”
Leveraging strengths, compensating for weaknesses
Setting goals, understanding and meeting needs, and clarifying roles are steps collaborative partners need to take to leverage their strengths and compensate for each other’s weaknesses. If your collaboration hits a rough patch and it appears that an uncollaborative partner is causing it, remember: Following the power trail may illuminate the real issue—and point to a solution.