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Tools You Can Use

Six Best Practices for Complex Collaborations

Resource
The Nimble Collaboration: Fine-Tuning Your Collaboration for Lasting Success

Contents
Six Best Practices
    1. Enlist a highly visible spokesperson
    2. Modify partner agencies' mission statements
    3. Eliminate meeting overlap
    4. Retreat and reflect
    5. Conduct mutual evaluations
    6. Use a community-driven process to distribute funds
Epilogue: Unusual Practices for Unusual Results

 

From Vince Hyman, former Publishing Director, Fieldstone Alliance:

Cartoon of unusual collaboration between garden club and little leagueSOME OF THE MOST interesting forms of collaboration are those that set out to resolve complex social issues such as teen pregnancy, long-term economic problems, or homelessness.

Typically, such problems require a large number of partners. They also require a long time frame, because the ultimate goal is often to change deeply ingrained norms. Some of these collaborations may even anticipate several generations of work before true change is made.

Back when I wrote and edited materials on chemical abuse prevention—before collaboration had evolved into the powerful tool it is today—we referred to some of these approaches as "multiple impact strategies." It was the same idea: many different parts of a system have to be altered to get the comprehensive change sought.

Karen Ray, co-author of the Collaboration Handbook documents such collaborations in chapter five of her own work, The Nimble Collaboration: Fine-Tuning Your Collaboration for Lasting Success. Karen consults with collaboratives across the country, and has developed a specialty in these larger collaboratives. They are often regional efforts, involving unusual alliances, since deep social problems invariably cross disciplines. Karen has documented six practices that help such collaborations succeed. Note: These practices assume the collaboration has already put in place the basic twenty factors collaborations need to succeed. For a list of those factors, click here.

Six Best Practices
Karen notes that many comprehensive collaboratives are relatively new, having emerged in the past decade. In her work with them, she has observed the following practices that seem to improve success.

1. Enlist a highly visible spokesperson
When seeking to change the culture of a community, influential leaders are a must. A well-known champion—whether a celebrity, a political leader, a beloved congregational or business leader—willing to put a public face (as well as his or her own reputation) on an issue can help turn the vast undecided middle.

2. Modify partner agencies' mission statements
When collaborative partners have a good history and are deeply committed to the long-term goals of the collaborative, partners are actually modifying their organizations' missions to align with the goals of the collaboration. This may seem a radical move, but it has several impacts. First, it shows the depth of the partner agencies' commitment. Second, it ensures that the work of the collaboration continues beyond the tenure of the individual agency representatives. In one county-wide collaboration seeking to end violence, domestic abuse shelters, teen clubs, and law enforcement agencies all agreed to add a phrase to their mission or philosophy statements that emphasizes the commitment to reducing violence.

3. Eliminate meeting overlap
One of the issues complex collaboratives face is brought about through their own evolution. Often the collaboration starts small, working on a single issue, and over time partners start to recognize that they are all participating in a range of collaborations that attract the same organizations. They are encountering the complexity of social problems from the bottom up, and as they work toward more global causes, they begin to run into each other in collaborations that once seemed unrelated. As this recognition dawns, they can take the simple first step of trying to reduce the overlapping meetings. As they do so, the more complex collaboration emerges organically.

4. Retreat and reflect
The practice of stopping the collaboration from doing and shifting it to reflection is especially important in large collaborations. Further, the whole body needs to assemble, so that participants can view the complexity writ large. During retreat and reflection, direct service staff (who may see only a fraction of the elephant) can hear from leaders about the status of the entire beast. The sheer numbers of people who show up to such retreats can provide an enormous emotional boost to direct service staff and to collaborative representatives, who are most likely to experience burnout and exhaustion.

5. Conduct mutual evaluations
This practice may sound scary, but when the organizations involved in a collaboration step back and ask of each other "How is each agency changing internally to help the whole system improve" they free themselves to get both the good and bad out on the table. They help each other become more accountable to solving the problem the collaboration convened to address.

6. Use a community-driven process to distribute funds
As large collaboratives gain success in impacting complex social issues, they often attract new funds and other community resources. The challenge is that the partners must then figure out how to distribute funds fairly. To be blunt, they've got to avoid the mad dash to the feeding trough. One of the best ways to circumvent the problem is a four-step process.

Four steps to distributing funds fairly
In step 1, the community sets priorities. At least one communitywide meeting should be held, hosted by a recognized leader, to get input for the tangible results the collaboration should accomplish. This can eventually become a menu of needs that the community can help prioritize.

In step 2, the collaboration partners create a budget, predicting the costs associated with each of the community-driven priorities.

In step 3, the individual agencies actually make bids. They first show the work they are already doing to address the prioritized problems, along with the associated costs. This helps build trust among the agencies as they show just how much resources they are already investing.

Then, the agencies make bids against the new funds that are available. The bid shows which results the agency will achieve, the work it will do to get those results, and the costs of the work.

When bids overlap, the agencies that overlap handle the situation—not some outside group that "awards" funds. This causes the agencies that would normally be in competition to develop complementary bids that eliminate duplication—and they resubmit their bids as dovetailed applications, or one agency submits a bid with an agreement to subcontract with the other.

The result of this process is that funding applications are complete, are sensible, avoid duplications, respond to expressed community needs, and are perceived as fair.

In step 4, the organizations that do the work allocate the funds. The bidding process is open, avoiding secretive proposals, and every member agency reads all the bids. Each knows what the others are expected to do, for what amount of money. If the funding is coming from elected officials or a foundation, the agents in charge sign off on the entire package. Resources, whether cash or in-kind, are expected of every partner and are distributed to the partners who do the work.

Epilogue: Unusual Practices for Unusual Results
Deeply embedded problems affect almost everyone in some way: they hurt local economies, waste resources, make vulnerable groups pawns in political in-fights, damage social networks, and on and on across all neighborhoods and social strata.

For our most complex social challenges, collaboration is probably the very best tool we have—and a great gift from the nonprofit sector to the rest of society.

Complex collaborations, by their very nature, bring together the unusual suspects. It is no wonder, then, that some of the practices that emerge from them are a bit unusual.

Sincerely,

Vince Hyman
Publishing Director
Fieldstone Alliance

September 12, 2006

 

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