Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Celebrating Collaboration

I was recently talking with a friend of mine, Nancy Lippe, an officer at a local community foundation, with whom I have collaborated on several projects, about a workshop that she recently attended for non-profits about collaboration. I invited her to post an article about her thoughts following the workshop as I felt her perspective was useful to any organizations involved in philanthropy that use collaboration as a tool towards reaching their goals.
I am a program officer for our local community foundation and recently attended a workshop called "Celebrating Collaboration" targeted at nonprofits in my community, and hosted by a collaborative of local service clubs (Rotary, Kiwanis, Lions, etc). This group, the Community Roundtable, hosts one or two events a year for local charitable organizations.

What came to mind while listening to my tablemates during a small group activity is that we each came to the table with a different definition of "collaboration." The meeting facilitator had not addressed what collaboration specifically means -- or the spectrum it can encompass. He offered charts of different stages of collaboration and elements of effective collaboration, which were helpful but assumed we knew what collaboration meant when we got there. At our table we had the Red Cross, which works extensively with local municipalities, agencies and organizations. We had one group fending off the advances of a larger group competing with them on the delivery of school site music instruction. We had several mentoring/tutoring programs who work together occasionally, performing similar functions in different niches. We also had the organizer of a community group that meets monthly just to share activities around gang prevention, but very little joint activity. They each talked about collaborating, but clearly had different ideas as to what that meant.

I think collaboration is an overused buzz word that really does not describe a specific relationship, but perhaps a desire to work together. Within that term you could chart a progression of relationships from very loose "cooperation" to a tighter organizational model that results in a new "collaborative" structure. The key variables involve the extent to which the following are shared: short and long term goals, resources, organizational structure, and leadership. The American Library Association has a terrific one page description of the progression from cooperation to coordination to collaboration that shows the relationship of these variables:

In looking back at my tablemates I think that the Red Cross collaboration is really extensive coordination with multiple organizations; the music groups are trying to coordinate competitive work at specific sites -- but this work could grow into a full collaboration where they share leadership and resources; the mentoring programs also could coordinate more on activities they share, but may not need full collaboration; and the network of local organizations dedicated to gang prevention are cooperating, not collaborating. While we need to embrace the spirit behind the term "collaboration," I think we should be more mindful in daily work with potential "collaborators" as to what we really mean, and the more explicit we are the more likely we are to succeed.

by Nancy Lippe, Program Officer, Los Altos Community Foundation


Maggie F. Keenan, Ed.D. said...

Yeah, I was a program officer at a community foundation once too?!?

Lalia Helmer said...

Hi Maggie,
Thanks for leaving your comment.I suspect that your work as a program officer has given you a great perspective from the non-profit side in helping businesses develop their strategic giving plans.