Collaboration. Consider, for a moment, just that one word. Collaboration. I have long encouraged nonprofits to collaborate, but collaboration has never been more important, even urgent, than it is today.
Right now nonprofits are focused on their immediate survival. They are worried about tomorrow, not months from now. Do they have money in the bank and supporters who will stick with them? The organizations I talk to are looking for guidance about next steps, what actions they can take right now. Let me share some ideas and personal experiences surrounding collaboration that I hope can be helpful.
Collaboration in the Northern Sierra
In 2007, my wife Becky and I thought there was an opportunity to create a collaborative initiative to conserve, restore, and enhance the magnificent natural landscape of California’s northern Sierra Nevada. The Sierra Nevada is the longest unbroken mountain range in North America, a 400 mile-long expanse of granite peaks, deep forests, and sparkling lakes. It’s also the major source of California’s water system, and so is important geography for all Californians.
Our early efforts grew into the Northern Sierra Partnership, a collaboration between five respected organizations: Feather River Land Trust, Sierra Business Council, The Nature Conservancy, Truckee Donner Land Trust, and The Trust for Public Land. They formed a partnership to work on conservation, restoration, and economic development in this critical geography.
Now, more than a dozen years on, we have evidence that it really can be done. The partners have mobilized the human and financial resources to conserve over 82,000 critical acres across the region. Like most challenges worth taking on, it wasn’t easy. We created a unique approach to collaborative conservation with these five organizations that we have yet to see copied anywhere, despite powerful evidence that a partnership among organizations with different roles and domains can work. Yes, we had to make course corrections along the way. We’ve had to spend considerable time and energy on interpersonal communication and negotiation among the partners, as we asked them to do things that nonprofits rarely do. The results, I hope, speak for themselves.
Your Partner’s Success
When you are engaged in any effort that demands collaboration, you must treat your partner’s issues as paramount and do everything you can to resolve friction and help your partner succeed. You cannot build a healthy and productive partnership when you ignore your partner’s issues, or when your partner worries that you will take advantage of the relationship. If you convey that you appreciate and want to help your partner succeed, my experience is that you will receive the same support in return when you need it.
It’s important to bring a certain mindset to any collaboration. From first-hand experience I’ve developed a set of principles for successful collaboration that apply internally as well as externally. They may sound simple, but they require serious commitment:
· Both parties must perceive that agreements are fair. Goals should be attainable and payoffs achievable.
· I don’t expect to reach my goal before my partners reach theirs.
· I’ll keep my partners apprised of both the success and failures of my efforts.
· Long-term relationships have greater payoffs than quick rewards.
· I believe my contribution is critical, but that my partners can be successful without me.
Alongside those principles I developed a presentation that I call “C to the 6th.” It focuses on the six tactical elements of collaboration that I believe are important to actually make collaborations work.
The six steps are largely self-explanatory, but I’d draw your attention to the last three—Concrete, Check, and Close. When I advocate collaboration, it means aligning and combining the efforts of teams that do much of their work separately and that, to be productive, must be allowed to focus on the clear, high-value deliverables needed to make a project succeed.
Let me leave you with two questions that you can brainstorm with your team and your partners:
1. How does your organization embrace a culture of collaboration? What value might there be in collaborating externally toward a major goal?
2. In what ways can management and your board lead and nurture a culture of collaboration within your organization?
Let me know your thoughts on how nonprofits can strengthen their organizations through a commitment to collaboration.
I invite you to share this newsletter and order a complimentary print or digital download of my latest booklet, Applied Wisdom for the Nonprofit Sector: Eight Practical Insights for Leaders.
To your success,