Collaborative Initiatives and Effectiveness

What are the benefits of collaboration?

Over my decades of work with nonprofit organizations, I have assisted initiatives in understanding the effectiveness of their work together. An increasing number of funders and organizations are seeing the advantages offered by collaborating, such as: leveraging resources, reducing duplication of effort, and increasing the number of clients served. Collaborative initiatives encourage the cross-fertilization of ideas that can lead to innovation and new solutions to our complex problems. The reasons to engage in a collaborative initiative may be obvious, yet, how to measure its effects remains challenging. 

Funders may be reluctant to fund an initiative with unclear goals and objectives and vague definitions of success. Organizations are wary of engaging in yet another initiative that will take time and resources away from their important work. Also, the form and function of these initiatives may be difficult to define and vary in complexity. They may be described as a network, an alliance, a coalition, or a collaboration.

The functions of these groups may vary from simply sharing information to cooperating with each other to provide mutual support, or engaging in common tasks with compatible goals to integrating their strategies and work for a collective purpose. Collaborative initiatives can be as complex and integrated as the issues they have come together to address.

What does it mean to collaborate?

Any organization that has made the attempt knows that it is much more than simply working with another person or group in order to achieve or do something. Woodward and Hutton (2012) list key attributes of collaborative initiatives, and those are:

1) They are organized around a shared purpose that serves as the binding reason to come together.

 2) The collaborations take place in a nested way wherein participants often wear more than one hat, belonging both to a collaborative initiative and to an organization that is a part of that initiative.

3) The initiatives grow and develop in a predictable cycle.

 4) The initiatives are integrated and formalized on a continuum that ranges from slightly integrated and informal to very integrated and very formalized, and the range will vary according to the complexity of the problem they are addressing.

 5) The initiatives involve forming teams that dialogue, make decisions, take action, and evaluate the outcomes of their actions.

How can organizations collaborate effectively?

Understanding the predictable phases of collaboration is key. Collaborative initiatives follow a predictable developmental path that includes the following:

1) Assemble and form
2) Storm and order
3) Norm and perform
4) Transform and adjourn

The process of evaluation can help funders and the member organizations learn about these predictable phases and help answer those questions that emerge, like:

  • Who is participating and who is not, and when is the right time to bring in new members?
  • Is there a clear commitment to a shared vision – why or why not?
  • What are the existing communication patterns among members?
  • To what extent is leadership distributed or shared?
  • What is the value of the collaborative initiative to the various stakeholders – the funders, the members, the member organizations, and the community at large?

As New Mexico nonprofits face increasing budget cuts from the state, collaborative initiatives that cross organizational and sector boundaries can be an effective strategy for addressing complex social issues. By monitoring the development and exploring both the quality and quantity of the relationships and its work, stakeholders can make real time decisions about how to improve the quality of their partnerships.

References: Woodland, R.H. and Hutton, M.S., (2012). Evaluating Organizational Collaborations: Suggested Entry Points and Strategies.

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