Successful Collaboration...6 Points of Reflection
We hear it a lot now...messages, texts, and voicemails buzzing around, "We need to collab!" What does that look like in action?
When I worked in the military and DoD, collaboration was not a special project, it was an integral part of our daily work flow. Different branches of the military collaborate on an hourly basis. Different departments of the federal government work as cogs in one large machine. It is simply a way of life.
So naturally, when I began working in the nonprofit sector, I was baffled and frustrated at the lack of true collaboration between related entities. The root cause, as I see it, always seems to boil down to agendas and egos. When you're not paid a lot of actual dollars for the work you do, some of your compensation comes from feeling valued and special....from feeling seen. Therefore, it naturally follows that asking people to collaborate for the sole purpose of accomplishing the greater mission when it means putting aside ego and agenda seems an impossible and insurmountable task.
I am two things, however: stubborn and ridiculously idealistic. I do believe that [most] people will ultimately do the right thing, if asked the right way and just the riiight amount of positive peer pressure is applied. And I do know of some organizations who are making it happen in extraordinary ways every single day. So here's six points of reflection, from where I sit, that nonprofit leaders can utilize to maximize the benefits of true successful collaboration.
“Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.”
– Helen Keller
1. What's the whole entire point?
Be mission centered, in a fervent and honest way. If you're a start-up or a very young NPO struggling to get a foothold in the community, step back and review your mission. What is it that you do? Is there another organization already doing that thing (that may be taking all the funds and manpower needed to do it)? How is your organization different? If it isn't, perhaps swallow your pride and simply ask that organization how you can help. Having a collaborative spirit means doing the work that needs to be done, whether you are the founder and CEO of your very own NPO or by simply applying as a staff member or volunteer at the organization that already exists to do that thing. Keeping your eye keenly focused on the mission will make sure collaboration comes naturally.
If your organization is an established one in the community, look for fledgling start-ups that are looking to do what you're already doing and ask to meet with their leadership. Maybe they decided to start up because...wait for the sting...you're not doing so great and they think they can do better. Be willing to listen and hear what they're saying to determine if collaborating with them may improve your organization!
"It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed."
– Charles Darwin
2. Who are people listening to?
OK, you've determined you've got a unique vision and that the community would really benefit from your concept. Chances are, you're going to need the services of fellow NPOs or will need referrals to/from some other organizations to execute your mission. I know of very few nonprofits that totally operate with zero involvement with other organizations. With which existing nonprofits is your organization working or going to be working the most? Now, who is in leadership at those organizations? [Hint: if you see the same names pop up at local Chamber meetings, community newsletters, and local workshops and forums, jot down those names. They're your targets.] Do whatever you have to do to get on their calendars. Coffee, lunch, whatever. Take whatever bit of time they'll give you and maximize it. You want them intrigued, excited, but not overwhelmed. Prepare a one-page, nicely designed Case for Support with basic FAQ specifically targeted to what you want their connection role to be. This means, yes, preparing several versions of this for different types of people, organizations, etc. A Case for Support for a prospective Board Member looks very different than one for a prospective Community Organization Partnership. Don't skimp on time here. Be thorough.
"The fun for me in collaboration is, one, working with other people just makes you smarter; that's proven."
3. Am I totally prepared?
Yes, I'm going to beat this one to death here. I know I just said it. Be prepared to discuss what collaborative efforts you're looking for. Be specific, be frank, and be realistic. Be prepared for questions. And, ouch, be prepared for rejection. That's OK. Responding with grace to a "No, not right now," leaves the door open to future collaborative efforts. Be prepared to discuss who's already on board, who you still have to talk to, what organizations you'll be working with, what your ideal collab looks like, where your funding will come from... basically work through this conversation from every possible angle to predict what questions will come your way and answer them. This is where good friends and coffee or dinner dates come in handy. Send your materials to friends first and let them grill you as others will always come up with questions you never would have thought of. This process may make you rethink aspects of your mission and/or vision or the specific project on which you're working, so it's a valuable process any way you shake it.
This also follows through during the project or the length of the collaboration. Be super organized, very clear on who is doing what, and keep a regular schedule of meetings to ensure everyone is satisfied. Take advantage of project management tools to keep documents in a central online location, track tasks and milestones, and facilitate a space for connection.
“Many ideas grow better when transplanted into another mind than the one where they sprang up.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes
4. Am I available as much as I need to be?
If you are looking to collaborate with more than a couple of organizations, be ready to speak on your vision at any time. You will be asked to pop in someone's church group, Rotary club, men's breakfast, networking mixer, etc. and may have very short notice (I got a text back once..."Can you do tomorrow?"). Being flexible and available also gives a positive impression that you are a great person to work with, as well. Don't just be available to "sell" your vision....be available once the collaboration commences, also! Don't ghost the people and organizations who have committed to your vision!
“To be able to impact the society and to be an agent of change, you have to make yourself available to serve.”
5. Do I have my slice of humble pie with me today?
Keep your ego in check always. You've asked to collaborate with these organizations for a reason, and it's most likely because they're doing something better than you are or you could or something you just don't know how to do. Respect that. Respect others' experience, credentials, and time by coming to the table with a truly humble spirit; ready to learn, ready to work, and ready to change your vision if seasoned experts point to flaws. Listen more than you speak.
I saw something once that I'll not soon forget: met with a local bigwig, name on everyone's lips, speaking engagements all over town....after a lunch meeting he lingered behind and, once almost everyone was gone, he began cleaning the conference table of lunch leftovers, papers, etc. We were in a donated space, meaning the employees of that nonprofit would have had to clean up after us. He observed this and acted upon it, but not the second the meeting concluded- no, he waited until almost every set of eyes was gone to humbly clean his peers' mess. That spirit of humility and willingness to work for the greater good was evident throughout all of his projects and in the fabulously successful collaborations in which he participated.
“A great man is always willing to be little.”
- Ralph Waldo Emerson
6. What am I offering?
Even the biggest bleeding heart isn't going to pour into a project or ongoing relationship with no idea what he or she is getting from it. Be clear what value you/your organization is bringing to the table. Have some quantifiable projections or statistics about how your involvement is going to positively impact the overall mission. This goes beyond simply being mission-centric; it means continuing to check your work to make sure you're pulling your fair share of weight in the overall project.
Collaboration done right can move mountains. The Navy, Army, and Air Force can attack and destroy a target from sea, land, and air. Imagine if we attack issues of social justice, poverty, hunger, and community development with the same collaborative spirit. Setting aside ego and agenda for the greater good is our only hope of affecting true, lasting, sustainable change for good. If you've asked yourself these points of reflection and are coming up positive, go out there and team up....in fact, drop me a line!