The Difference Between Partnerships and Collaboration

by Rabbi Aaron Bisno

Two years ago I began speaking of the need for communal collaboration. I laid down this gauntlet for both my own congregation in Pittsburgh, Rodef Shalom, as well as for our neighbors because I felt the challenges we faced were so significant that no single entity could possibly solve them alone. Further, I believed – and feel more strongly than ever – that we and our children and grandchildren will not be well served if we continue to rely upon the modus operandi that “have served us so well for so long but have only taken us so far.”

In the last two years, we have accomplished much. Across Jewish Pittsburgh (and across the country), the most forward-looking congregations and agencies are working together in ways that would have been unthinkable only a short time ago. This is commendable and ought be encouraged, especially given, that more often than not, without consistent pressure, we are wont to slip back into familiar and comfortable patterns. Left to our own devices, we are apt to slide back into our old ways. And this we cannot afford.

But for all the new configurations wherein we find ourselves working side-by-side (not an insignificant accomplishment), it is time to clarify what true collaboration means.

When first I spoke of the need for collaborating, it was enough that erstwhile rivals would find a means of working together. After all, inertia is a powerful force and it was sufficient that we were making forward progress. But I believe our community is now ready to move beyond being self-satisfied working in tandem. Indeed, it is time to recognize the difference between partnerships of convenience and collaborations that create new and real value.

Let us agree that “to partner” means to join forces in pursuit of a shared goal. Coming together in this way may or may not mean working together as equals; and partnerships may or may not mean welcoming others to share in the work. But if, in the effort, there is a first among equals, though we may have invited neighbors to be involved, our work does not rise to the level of a true collaboration. Inviting neighbors to lend their name to an internally-focused program in which others have only limited involvement in our own effort is a good start, but it is not a collaboration. And if our effort’s goal is addressing a communal challenge (solving for a problem beyond our own doors) but only advances the agenda for a limited number of participants, the work may be a partnership, but in the end it is self-serving, and is not a true collaboration. And finally, if the partnered effort precludes welcoming additional actors to be part of addressing the challenge – indeed, welcoming all who would seek to be part of the solution – then, in this case, too, though potentially novel, noteworthy and laudable, the partnership falls short of being a true collaboration.

Examples of such good and partnered works might include renting space to other Jewish agencies, welcoming neighbors to join a program already in progress (ie. inviting other agencies or congregations to sign on to a program and even sharing profits with them), or one party working exclusively (that’s the key word) with a second party to advance an agenda for the benefit of outside third-parties. All of these are examples of partnerships many of our communities will recognize (and can boast of engaging), but they simply do not rise to the level of collaborations.

To collaborate, after all, means to “co-labor” as equals, with both/all parties involved putting in a commensurate level of resources and effort to achieve a shared outcome for the greater good. Further, collaboration is defined by these equal parties joining forces to accomplish something any one of them working solo never could have realized on their own. And significantly, this collaborative effort must be in service of addressing a pressing need that is either unique to the invested parties, or, if working at a communal level, must include a means by which an ever wider circle of participants can join in realizing the effort’s goals.

As I look across Pittsburgh, I am proud of what I see. Beyond partnerships (which are good and important and are increasing in number), many are the examples of true collaboration (which are even better). Pittsburgh’s AgeWell is recognized as a national model of three social service agencies joining as collaborative partners to address issues related to elder care. Our Agency for Jewish Learning’s annual Tikkun Leil Shavuot program allows Jews from across the religious spectrum to collaborate in a multi-denominational learning environment. In the city, Reform congregations collaborate on Selichot and Festival services. In the suburbs Reform and Conservative congregatios are collaborating on their confirmation programs. And most significantly, my own Reform congregation and our Conservative neighbor Beth Shalom are entering our third year working collaboratively to create the most dynamic and vital Jewish education program we can together envision. Indeed, today we are actively working hand-in-hand to hire a single director (who will be shared by both our congregations) for what we call our Joint Jewish Education Program (JJEP). And we have extended an open hand of welcome to every other congregation to join with us!

I know many other efforts – both partnered and collaborative – are taking place across the country. This is laudable and must be encouraged and supported by our communal powers-that-be. Though often fraught with uncertainty, these new models for addressing the Jewish future are the only sure way forward. Of that, there can be no doubt.

So how to begin? How do we start to move beyond our own silos and egos and fear? The first step in working together is often, and appropriately, at the partnership level. One organization invites another (or others) to append their name to a program already envisioned or underway so as to address a communal need with greater numbers and buy-in. In the beginning, this is appropriate and good and the surest way to build trust and win friends. But this is sufficient only in the short term.

And from initial partnerships, how do we move to true collaboration? We do so by acknowledging our shared stake in the outcomes of our efforts. Simply, given the challenges every single one of our organizations will continue to face as we go forward, we must commit ourselves to moving out of our respective silos, beyond our own buildings and past the initial, limited partnerships we have begun on our way to truly collaborative endeavors.

The stakes are too great for us to do otherwise.

Rabbi Aaron Bisno holds the Frances F & David R Levin Senior Rabbinic Pulpit, Rodef Shalom Congregation in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.