September 7, 2010

Collaboration Sucks

As a young, idealistic, emerging professional I made a decision to enter a unique niche in the social services sector-- leading system level community change.  Collaboration has become a buzz word, not only in academia, but on the ground in the non-profit and government human services arena.  But really, why collaborate?  It's HARD.  I worked for several years with a team of other professionals who were trying to figure out this treacherous field of community change - coalition building, partnership development, and collaborative change movements.  Our motto was 'Collaboration Sucks.'  Bringing together diverse organizations to affect the common good can bring with it an array of surprising, complex, and seemingly insurmountable challenges.  We're all competing for limited resources, so why should we tell each other our programmatic weaknesses and challenges?  We are all struggling to address complex needs of very vulnerable families, so why should we take the time to talk about big-picture, community level issues and policies?  We have very different approaches to solve problems, and very different organizational cultures, so why should we try to pool our resources and advocate with one voice?  Why?  Because sometimes that is where we can make the biggest impact.  Coalitions get stuff done.  Sharing the burden of advocacy, public awareness, professional development, resource development- it makes sense.  Sometimes the rising tide really does float all boats.  However, it comes at a cost.  Hundreds of hours of staff time can be sucked away as staff attend meetings, always somewhat unclear about their role in the meetings, how to represent their agency, and confused about where conversations might be heading.  Different perspectives and values collide in very real and sometimes very emotionally challenging ways when different organizations are asked to think in different ways, and even sacrifice resources or ideas to which they have clung for decades.   My perspective on the issue is simple.  Don't collaborate unless it REALLY makes sense.  Don't just throw your hat in the ring if your agency doesn't have a clear gain from being at the table.  Don't allocate staff resources if your program will not benefit.  Collaboration is challenging and time-consuming.  So don't do it if it doesn't further your mission.  But when a chance at a powerful collaboration comes your way, engage fully, openly and passionately. Magic can happen. I've seen magic happen hundreds of times.  That's why I stick with it. -MP

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