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Fieldstone Alliance: 4 Keys to Colllaboration

Four Keys to Collaboration Success

by Carol Lukas and Rebecca Andrews


As a consultant I'm often asked, “Why do some collaborations succeed and others fail?” As you can imagine, there are many factors involved (see Twenty Factors Influencing Collaboration Success below). However, having consulted with more than 50 collaborations in the past ten years, I've identified four keys that—while not a guarantee to success—are essential to a well-functioning collaboration. Those keys are:

  1. Clarify the purpose
  2. Let form follow function
  3. Involve the right people
  4. Get it in writing


Key #1: Clarify the Purpose
Imagine a colleague calls and says, “Our organizations can have greater impact if we collaborate on this project.” “Great, let's meet,” is the response. After three meetings, our colleague is talking about the mission for the collaboration and what we want to achieve together in the next year. You're thinking, “Year? All I ever planned to give this was half-a-dozen meetings at the most.”

Many people think that anytime they're working together, they're collaborating. They also assume that everyone has a similar notion of what collaboration means. Actually, there are many ways to work together, with varying levels of intensity in the relationship between partners. Knowing what you want to accomplish will determine whether you need to cooperate, or coordinate, or collaborate. The table below illustrates this continuum:

(From Collaboration Handbook, by Michael Winer and Karen Ray.)

lower intensity higher intensity
Shorter-term, informal relationships

Shared information only

Separate goals, resources, and structures

Longer-term effort around a project or task

Some planning and division of roles

Some shared resources, rewards, and risks

More durable and pervasive relationships

New structure with commitment to common goals

All partners contribute resources and share rewards and leadership

True collaboration requires a commitment to shared goals, a jointly developed structure and shared responsibility, mutual authority and accountability for success, and sharing of resources, risks, and rewards. Here's a definition.

Collaboration is a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve common goals.

However you decide to work together, it's important that everyone understands and agrees to the purpose of the collaboration, the degree of commitment required, and the expectations of partners involved in the effort.

There's another important reason for being clear on your purpose. If you do collaborate, you're going to need help from funders and the community. That means you'll need to grab their attention with a compelling, distinctive message. I tell my clients that they should be able to relay their message in the time it takes to ride an elevator. The message should describe what the collaboration is about, why it's important, and why it should be supported. Sometimes even the name can capture the message. For example, a collaborative working to increase affordable housing called itself “2000 x 2000.” This captured the heart of their goal, which was to develop 2,000 units of quality, affordable housing by the year 2000.

Key #2: Let Form Follow Function
Just as there are different ways of working together, there are also different types of collaborations. Simpler is better. Choose the simplest form necessary to achieve your goal. Because time spent on the collaboration is an addition to your regular workload, simple forms save you time.

Here are the three main types of collaboration and their levels of intensity:

Degree of Intensity



Service Delivery

Centralized purchasing, benefits programs

Shared staff (proposal writer, bookkeeper)


Asset management

Board/staff development

New funding streams

Packaged funding requests

Advocacy on policy issues e.g., welfare reform, community violence

Media/marketing campaigns

Community forum

Region-wide service delivery system

Niche specialties shared through contracts

New program development

Coordinated intake and referral

Staff exchanges

Difficulty, Time, Impact
Low High

Significant increases in efficiency, reach, and impact on mission can be gained with each type of collaborative. But the difficulty, time required, and potential impact on the people you serve increases as you move to the right side of the chart.

Key #3: Involve the Right People
If your goal is better referrals between organizations that have the same customer base but different services, a few program staff meetings and cross-training for two or three months may be enough to improve access to a wider range of services for constituents. However, if the goal is to change your county's mental health services, having only program staff involved in a few meetings won't cut it. If you're aiming for broad organizational or system changes, top leadership of each organization needs to be at the table and engaged in the collaboration's work. Success in achieving your collaboration's goals may require representatives from other sectors or your constituents (e.g., elected officials, city government, school board, or business sector).

When choosing partners consider these questions:

  • Do you share the same goals?
  • Do they have the required capabilities and resources?
  • Do they have credibility in the community?
  • Do you have a trusting relationship?

As a rule, work with as few people as necessary to get the job done. The more people involved, the greater the number of communications; the greater the intensity; and the greater the difficulty of learning about each other, balancing power, and coordinating your work.

Key #4: Get It in Writing
The most common reason for a collaboration meltdown is disagreements and uncertainty about operating norms. This is why it's so important to create a collaboration charter.

A charter, also known as an operating agreement or memorandum of understanding, lays out the rules that govern the collaboration. The charter should include the collaboration's mission and purpose; values and assumptions; vision, timelines and milestones; members and membership policies; roles and contributions, policies (competition, conflicts of interest, financial relationships); and norms (participation, decision-making, communication, conflict, meetings). It's especially important to decide what the agreements are for leadership and decision-making.


Getting the Results You're After
Collaboration is a powerful way to accomplish what no single organization can. It's also a complex way to work. Following these four keys will increase the likelihood of your success—and of ultimately getting the results you're after . So take heart and remember—struggle precedes growth!

Twenty Factors Influencing Collaboration Success

(From Collaboration: What Makes It Work, by Paul Mattessich, PhD, Marta Murray-Close, BA, & Barbara Monsey, MPH.)

Following are twenty factors that research has identified as influencing collaboration success. The factors are grouped into six categories:

  1. Environment
  2. Membership Characteristics
  3. Process and Structure
  4. Communication
  5. Purpose
  6. Resources

To ensure the effectiveness of your collaborative effort, pay attention to all the factors listed.

1. Factors Related to the ENVIRONMENT

A. History of collaboration or cooperation in the community
B. Collaborative group seen as a legitimate leader in the community
C. Favorable political and social climate


A. Mutual respect, understanding, and trust
B. Appropriate cross section of members
C. Members see collaboration as in their self-interest
D. Ability to compromise

3. Factors Related to PROCESS and STRUCTURE

A. Members share a stake in both process and outcome
B. Multiple layers of participation
C. Flexibility
D. Development of clear roles and policy guidelines
E. Adaptability
F. Appropriate pace of development

4. Factors Related to COMMUNICATION

A. Open and frequent communication
B. Established informal relationships and communication links

5. Factors Related to PURPOSE

A. Concrete, attainable goals and objectives
B. Shared vision
C. Unique purpose

6. Factors Related to RESOURCES

A. Sufficient funds, staff, materials, and time
B. Skilled leadership


Related resources

Collaboration Resource List
A free list of resources dealing with the topic of collaboration. This list is useful to collaborations and collaboration consultants.

Collaboration Factors Inventory
Use this online tool to help you assess your collaboration’s strengths and weaknesses.

Tips for Managing Conflict in Collaborations
Typical sources of conflict in collaborations and ways to resolve them.


For more information, please contact Sandy Jacobsen at 651.556.4510 or email her at to discuss your interests and how we might work together for strong nonprofits and communities.

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