Building Arizona Collaborative Nonprofits and Community Collaborations

“Collaboration equals innovation.”  — Michael Dell

I have always fascinated by collaboration, when it works well, society benefits, organizations benefit, and we benefit.   For many community organizations, collaboration means the relationship between independent organizations. Organizations collaborate when they believe they can accomplish more together than they can alone, when a significant issue threatens to have an impact on them, such as an economic downturn, or when a donor requests “collaboration” as part of a condition for funding.

However, the longer I write about, engage in, and train on, collaboration, the more I realize that to create successful relationships between organizations, we need to live the spirit of collaboration in our individual organizations.

Successful organization relationships are created because of successful personal relationships.  Where we learn to collaborate and build community is within the structures where we work day in and day out.  When an organization is intentional about supporting and inspiring a collaborative culture; the external collaborations are stronger, more vibrant and successful. Creating outstanding collaboration is both an art and a science, requiring energy and dedication, and when done well, the results are transformative. Organizations with have high levels of social capital, trust, accountability and engagement create impact in their communities.  Collaborative organizations think about what is possible for their communities, the people they serve, and how they can strengthen their impact. Not only are they building strong organizations, they are building a strong network of allies and advocates.

They commit to a unified, instead of a divided, culture because it moves their mission forward. Here are a few questions that can help inspire a collaborative dialogue within your organization.  Consider how you can engage the Board, the staff, and key stakeholders in this discussion:

  • Where can we be more collaborative in our organization?
  • How will collaboration align our people to our mission and vision? How will it align them to each other? How can it align the Board of Directors, staff and volunteers?
  • How will it help us create services that meet the needs of our community?
  • How can it create greater client satisfaction?
  • How can it help us measure our results and community impact?
  • How can it make us a better, more effectively run organizations?

Creating real collaboration in our organizations takes commitment and hard work. However when it is done well, the results are astounding.

As collaboration expert Morten Hansen says, “creating collaboration amplifies strength, but poor collaboration is worse that no collaboration at all.”  Here are a couple of initiatives that can leader to good collaboration:

Create a Culture of Teamwork

Many community organizations evolve from the start-up phase (We are all in this together.  Everybody does everything.  We feel like a family.  We all get to experience the results.) to the more “mature” organization in which people have moved on and that magic sense of cohesion has faded.  As the organization grows, there is a program department, a fund development department, and an administration department. Subtlety our “we are all in it” together culture becomes the “this is my department” culture and goals of department become more important than the goals of the organization and its mission.Organizational leaders have the responsibility — and opportunity — to foster a culture and set of actions that unifying both of the goals of departments or functions with the overarching goals of the organization. As Hansen notes in his book Collaboration: How Leaders Avoid the Traps, Create Unity and Reap Big Results, there are three fundamental unification mechanisms that support leaders in translating the lofty aspiration of unity into concrete measures: (1) create a unifying goal, (2) incite a common value of teamwork, and (3) speak the language of collaboration.

As Hansen notes, “Landing a man on the moon required the coordination of some 400,000 people, and this meant, that if one of the activities faltered, the whole thing could founder.” Commit to Engagement. Commit to intentional contentious engagement at all levels of the organization.

Commit to Continuous Engagement.

Building a strong team takes time, energy and care. A strong collaborative organization requires time.  Time to engage our peers, to actively listen to what they are saying and to respect conflicting views. In many community organizations, this is the scenario: the Board of Directors meets, makes decisions and then adjourns; staff is then expected to carry out the policies.However, often those very people who charged with implementing the policies into meaningful action, programs, and activities are not present at the meeting, or are invited as “silent” participators, there to take notes and listen but not to engage in the discussion or decision making process.

A culture is created where the  people who devote their professional lives to the organization, don’t have a place to give input to the most important decisions.I have also watched as well-intended staffs create and implement plans which have significant policy and financial implications and do not think to engage the Board of Directors in the process.  The Board learns of this new program or activity only after it as already been implemented.  Neither of these situations create strong, collaborative organizations.It is important to create meaningful opportunities for everyone in the organization to discuss important issues.

Quarterly Planning. Commit to hosting annual planning meeting (preferably off-site) to focus on your organization’s vision, mission, strategies and annual goals.  A successful off-site re-energizes people in thinking about what is possible, creates goals and builds an outline for action planning.   A great benefit to engaging everyone in the planning process is the development and deepening of each relationship.  A successful planning outing helps build trust and clarify commitments. It also supports unity around vision, mission and action plans.Rigorous Follow Up. Commit to reviewing, modifying and evaluating the plan. Plan to meet and track progress AT LEAST QUARTERLY.  Keep the plan alive and moving.  Celebrate successes.  Heck, celebrate failures.  Failure means you took a risk, and someone on the team stepped up.  Every major success has a few “mega-failures” — it’s part of the journey.

Commit a section of every Board meeting to  Create space for honest dialogue, let people know that their input is welcomed and desired.  Ensure there is an opportunity for committees and staff members to honestly discuss successes and challenges. If it is a large group, consider a breaking out into  smaller groups, so that everyone has an opportunity to participate.

Celebrate. Celebrate. Celebrate.

Lastly develop opportunities for organizational celebrations.  Be intentional about celebrating successes. Ensure that celebration is a part of your organizational culture.  Consider inviting people from the community to come share their stories and create time in meetings to celebrate organizational and individual accomplishments. Host social events.  Let people know that they are valued and respected. Organizations who foster a culture of collaboration achieve success.  They commit to a focus on overarching goals, unify people, foster a culture for a healthy exchange of ideas, celebrate their accomplishments, and move visions forward. 

We may have all come on different ships, but we’re in the same boat now.  Martin Luther King Jr.