Posted by: Nathaniel | August 1, 2008

Is collaboration really all that important?

Collaboration is all the rage these days in the social benefit world. More and more, foundations are coming together to fund initiatives such as the Living Cities urban redevelopment program. Even more, they’re attempting to reward positive collaboration between organizations. The Lodestar Foundation’s Collaboration Prize may be the best example.

Sometimes, I wonder though, to what ends? Or, perhaps, more accurately, I wonder whether organizations entering collaborative relationships, or those rewarding collaborative relationships, have actually articulated the increased social value those collaborations enable.

Let’s take a step back. I’m all for collaboration. In fact, the whole idea behind Assetmap.org, the web-startup I’m working on, is to make sure that individuals and groups with common interests and complimentary assets and needs can find each other more effectively. We want to improve resource distribution and utilization within the context of specific social benefit ecosystems, or communities of actors with common social goals.

What worries me is when collaborators have an easier time articulating their joining forces as an ethical rather than a strategic imperative. Sentiment can not come at the expense of strategy, but they are most certainly not mutually exclusive.

My experience with this has been mostly in the context of student or youth social entrepreneurship ventures. My generation of change-makers tend to be confident in their capacities and excited that their endeavors can be more collaborative than competitive. With so many of our interactions driven by social media, opportunities to share and brainstorm together seem natural. I’m sure it helps that, being in and around university age, many of us have not felt the intense pressure to win grants for our ideas to survive, as well. Either way, I think this disposition provides the social sector an incredible change to inculcate collaborative leaders.

But that means taking the time to reflect on how collaboration allows individuals and organizations to better specialize and work harder to determine their organizations’ unique value propositions.

A group of student-led global development and health focused nonprofit organizations has been going through just such a process over the last few months. In the last few years, a dozen or more of these groups, including GlobeMed, Nourish International, Student Movement for Real Change, our Center for Global Engagement, and others have sprung up to provide students at different campuses opportunities to work on development and health projects in communities around the world.

While the group started with an intuitive sense of the value of collaboration, a big part of the bi-monthly conference calls, shared Google documents and planning sessions has been making explicit the value and opportunities of collaboration.
Importantly, one of the major threads of the conversation has been around not collaboration in the sense of shared activities, but coordination in the sense of parallel development that provides undergraduate students a variety of opportunities without a lot of repetition. For example, as GlobeMed solicits applications for new chapters at universities, it can assess what sort of presence Nourish and SMRC already have there in determining whether it can add unique value. When a Nourish chapter is deciding where in East Africa to set up a new project site, it can talk to the CGE about our projects in Uganda or SMRC about their projects in Kenya to determine which, if either site, is best.

Applied writ-large, coordination that allows organizations to better add unique value and reduce repetition improves social benefit ecosystems as a whole. There is a great map on the Collective Intelligence website of organizations focused on Aids in Uganda that demonstrates the potential for mapping and understanding full ecosystems to help organizations better coordinate their activities.

Does anyone out there have particularly good or particularly bad examples of coordination or collaboration?

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