Fairmount InSights
Aimée Miller

I’ve been thinking a lot about collaboration lately. How can multiple actors best come together to merge different (and often competing) cultures and interests, to achieve a common goal? What are the conditions under which something truly significant results? What are the red flags that indicate despite good intentions all around, it’s time to chalk things up to “lessons learned” and walk away?

My desk is piled with some truly fascinating research on the subject. The Bridgespan Group recently assessed twelve “needle-moving” collaboratives nationally, including Philly’s Project U-Turn, to determine what made them work. Their research demonstrates the importance – and collective impact – of using metrics data to clearly define goals and guide decision-making; securing investments from supporters who are willing to take a long-term approach; and creating equal space for both power players and on-the-ground community providers to contribute to problem-solving.

But you don’t need to rely on a bevy of national experts to confirm what works. Consider the Rocktopus.

Two weeks ago, I took some pro bono time to volunteer at a local music and mentoring summer camp. Each year in just seven days, girls of all backgrounds, cultures, and socio-economic strata are formed into rock bands, given instrument instruction and coaching, and end up writing original songs they perform together for hundreds of people at a local venue. Days of excitement, nerves, tension – and yes, sometimes, tears – yield to incredible feelings of accomplishment, unity, celebration and legacy.

Bands are a natural structure for collaborative learning. They are goal-oriented, involve a high level of creative thought and experimentation, require consensus to complete their tasks, and rely upon active communication to keep individual members in sync (and in tune). This year, girls were supported by an unofficial camp mascot, the Rocktopus, and its guiding group agreements. They included:

  • Be yourself.  It’s essential to understand each partner’s motivations for coming to the table. What excites or concerns them about the task at hand? Who do they need to please or report back to? What is their unique role in the project’s ecosystem vis-à-vis others, and what contributions are expected from them? Clearly-defined MOUs, project org charts, and other start-up agreements create shared expectations that allow partners to stay true to who they are, with fewer bumps or “this isn’t what I signed on for” reactions along the way.
  • One diva, one mic.  Collaborations can’t work unless all actors are committed to actively listening to, hearing, and learning from each other. Partners should be careful not to let traditional hierarchies of funding, politics, prestige, etc. speak more loudly than the problem that needs to be addressed. Providers also need to assure that their day-to-day experience in the field doesn’t create an assumption of knowing more than well-meaning stakeholders who are there to lend other types of expertise and support.
  • Mistakes are COOL – keep going.  Collaboratives seeking to tackle big, entrenched issues take on a fair degree of risk. A key component of advancing best practices is experiencing setbacks and diagnosing barriers to inform and enhance future efforts. Just as important as touting what works is for partners to be honest with each other, as well as with funders and key stakeholders, about what hasn’t worked, and why. Partners entering into new collaborations must gauge their comfort level with managing unknowns, and aim to take the long view as they work towards their goal.

Nonprofits are increasingly seeking to engage public sector, philanthropic, and corporate partners in fostering measurable change. Clear and consensus definitions of project goals, metrics, operational structures and communications systems are the keys to pushing past obstacles and keeping momentum going.

How do you rock at collaboration, and who rocks because of you?