Collaboration is [usually] Good; but, Are You a Good Collaborator?

CollaborationLong time readers are aware that a checklist on funder collaboratives and partnerships, written over 10 years ago and updated regularly since, is the most frequently requested “how-to” piece in my oeuvre. The philanthropy field has bought into the value of both funder collaborations and funder-grantee partnerships. Every couple of years a slew of articles are published advocating the importance of collaborations, partnerships, and collective impact. The piece I wrote, used by many funders [I am gratified to report] and still available upon request, helps determine how suited your organization or foundation may be to be a collaborator, and what should be thought through before actually entering into such a relationship.

Funder collaboratives are all about leverage. The leveraging power of collaborations is undeniable: Sometimes it is to leverage more money, sometimes to leverage more expertise, sometimes to leverage more influence, and sometimes to mitigate risk. As funders recognize that most of the systemic problems we face confound the capabilities of any given funder or sector, it seems a no-brainer.

Yet we all know that mergers, collaborations, and partnerships fail. A lot. If they are so beneficial why is that?

From an organizational or foundation perspective, the answer is simple – even if the details are complex. Simply put, collaboration requires that some degree of autonomy be surrendered. Group decision-making takes time, energy, willingness, and no small dose of courage and humility. It is much more efficient to do things on your own, at your own pace, with your own ground rules. It is only worth it if you believe the long-term gains outweigh the short-term tradeoffs. The above mentioned checklist can help you decide.

Sometimes, though, even when all of these things are resolved, and the partner organizations achieve genuine consensus on all the elements, things go askew.

Well, believe it or not, organizations are comprised of people, individuals with their own quirks, personalities, insecurities, competitiveness, ambitions, and style. Just as not every foundation is suited to be a good partner, not every foundation professional or organizational executive is temperamentally suited to be a good partner. And just as it doesn’t necessarily make you a “bad” funder if you choose to go it alone, it doesn’t necessarily make you a bad person or bad professional if you aren’t in sync with others at the table.

If, though, everything else seems aligned and you are the one whose discomfort is the stumbling block, or if you find that others in the partnership regularly consult with each other and you aren’t included, or if you aren’t even invited to the planning table, some self-reflection may be in order. You may not be aware of your own mixed signals, or that your careful diligence may come across as negativity, or that your personal agenda keeps getting put on the table. Yes, it is always possible that there are other things going on that have nothing to do with you. They may or may not be correctable, perhaps not by you. But sometimes it really does come down to you.

How important is it to you or your organization or foundation that you become a player in the collaboration sphere? Maybe it is perfectly fine if you choose not to play. But if you or others who count decide it really does matter, here are some corrective steps to take that might help:

  1. When the time is right, acknowledge that you realize that you might have been perceived to be in the way. This is not a suggestion for a public and passionate mea culpa but a quiet admission to the functional chair of the group of your new self-awareness. Sometimes this will work, sometimes not, but you might be surprised by the new openness toward you. After all, collaborations are hard work and knowing that you are newly committed to the “team” may be eagerly received.
  2. When you are already in an ongoing collaboration, bend over backwards to be publicly supportive, positive, say, “yes” more than you might otherwise, and model that you get it. Studies have shown that if you start with “yes,” there is openness to disagreement, but if you start with “no,” even agreement is suspect.
  3. If you feel that you aren’t being included, you may need to proactively show that you do get it. Look for new opportunities, offer to take on a project, initiate a new collaboration, look for allies – not against others but with those who don’t find your style problematic.
  4. Ask one or two, but not everyone, if there was an incident that turned people off. You may not be able to retract it, or even change people’s minds, but it is a lot easier for you to adjust your affect if you know from where others’ opinions are coming.
  5. I suspect that many of you have other ideas as well. Please share them.
  6. An additional word about the unique challenge of funder-grantee partnerships: the implicit power imbalance makes these even more delicate for funders than collaborations among funders. They require a special level of mutuality to work. And while grantees are always aware of the imbalance, funders are often less self-aware. Recently, I had occasion to observe such a situation: the funder, a highly regarded, experienced, and well-intentioned professional, was absolutely convinced that s/he had a very open and trusting relationship with the foundation’s grantees. S/he was sure that some continuing obfuscation and delaying was not a tactic related to the foundation but rather the result of extraneous circumstances. It became obvious to an outsider, i.e., me, that the grantees felt in a bind: they did not want to say no to such an important and reliable funder, but the conditions the foundation applied to certain grants were simply unattainable. Frankly the professional was shocked – s/he was caught by surprise to learn how intimidating s/he appears.

A funder must work very hard to make it safe for a grantee or potential grantee to be fully open and completely honest. This blind spot on the part of that particular funder got in the way of moving a worthy project along for a long time – and jeopardized long cultivated relationships with at least two grantees.

A reassuring last word: Foundations and organizations rarely restrict themselves to a single collaboration. Any given attempt may not be salvageable, but the next one may be a winner. Make sure that you enter the new one with an engaging collegial approach. Who knows? You may become the “go-to” partner of choice.

Richard Marker teaches and advises funders from around the world through both the NYU Academy for Grantmaking and Funder Education and the Wise Philanthropy Institute, both of which he founded. His blog can be found at Wise Philanthropy.