The problems confronting the global community grow ever more complex. Fortunately, the United Nations' Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) provide unprecedented focus on and a stage for results-oriented development programming. And with numerous stakeholders seeking to align their impact with the SDGs, organizations are under pressure from donors as never before to leverage projects and programs more efficiently to produce measurable outcomes.
Collaborations are an increasingly important tool to that end. But engaging in collaborations can be a daunting prospect, and such efforts can run aground if not carefully and methodically constructed around a shared vision for the future.
At times, moving to a more collaborative way of working can feel impossible. Nonprofit organizations are committed to their missions and mission-critical programs, and their success depends on being able to aggressively identify and secure resources to cover their direct and indirect costs — even if it comes at the expense of other organizations doing the same kind of work.
But the zero-sum mindset so prevalent in the sector is beginning to change, and more and more organizations understand that by prioritizing collaboration, they can scale their efforts and achieve a level of impact that would have been impossible if they had stubbornly continued to go it alone.
Thankfully, there are various collaborative models — including partnerships, coalitions, collective impact, shared advocacy, and strategic alliances — for creating, guiding, and implementing programs in the global development space. And what they all have in common is a basic set of underlying principles, an insistence on a certain level of pragmatism, and an emphasis on operational flexibility.
Developing collaborative initiatives with multiple partners and seeing them through to the end also depends on the willingness and ability of the various leadership teams to apply creative thinking and problem-solving skills to the challenge at hand. Below are a number of lessons learned from our work with multiple partners on different projects that can be helpful if you are thinking about engaging in a collaboration.
It's the Basics That Make the Difference
Seen through the lens of the SDGs, much of the work of entities seeking to do social good, whether nonprofit, for-profit, or a public-sector or multilateral agency, frequently overlaps with the work of others seeking to address an issue affecting a particular population. But current frameworks and systems are not built for this reality and the increased collaboration needed to address it effectively — not least because it can be difficult to enlist key stakeholders, secure funding needed to support the effort, and identify the right leadership needed to bring about change.
When you decide to embark on a collaboration, preparing a scoping document will help clarify the focus of the project and make it easier to let go of things that do not fit the overall objective, in turn making it easier to sell the collaboration to your stakeholders. The scoping document should include:
- A basic concept sketch that includes a landscape analysis, a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis, partner opportunities and benefits, and a financial analysis;
- Core expected outcomes;
- The reasons a collaboration is the right approach to the problem and what the population in question stands to lose if the work isn't done collaboratively;
- Initial success metrics (more will be developed with your stakeholders); and
- Stakeholder criteria.
When identifying potential stakeholders, be sure to use the criteria you've developed, and seek the advice of peers and similar organizations for candidates that can bring unique strengths to the collaboration.
Once you've assessed the field of prospective stakeholders, make initial fact-finding calls to determine individual organization's interest level, willingness to forge an ongoing relationship, and capacity to fulfill their expected role.
Proper due diligence also requires that you look at the stakeholder's background, management team, and risk factors (e.g., past regulatory issues, funding model, SEC and
990 filings, and responsible parties).
That's Why They Call It a Backbone
Hiring an organization to provide what is commonly called “backbone services,” or that can act as a “secretariat,” if needed, provides a flexible, multi-functional management model for the collaboration, frees up various stakeholders to focus on the desired outcomes, and acts as a sort of glue for the effort.
As a first step, ask your backbone provider to support the development of term sheets that detail activities needed to accomplish the stated goals. It should also be able to:
- Ensure that all governance documents are in order;
- Define stakeholder roles and responsibilities;
- Help develop mission and vision statements;
- Create a work plan;
- Identify milestones against which progress can be tracked;
- Make sure the work gets out the door; and
- Identify and eliminate roadblocks to progress.
An effective backbone services provider will keep all stakeholders informed in a timely manner so that any complications that arise (and there will be complications) can be addressed by the appropriate stakeholder(s). Absent an organization that can provide those services, collaboratives often devolve into finger pointing and blame shifting when problems arise.
Creating a Plan That Survives
Once a framework is in place, roles and responsibilities have been defined, and a work plan and milestones have been established, all stakeholders must agree to mobilize the cash and non-cash resources required to support the collaboration. It is critical, as well, that the proposed scope of the effort is of interest to a constellation of donors. And during budget discussions, be sure to secure buy-in from all stakeholders with respect to the final budget.
Implementing the plan will require the orchestration of many variables in alignment with the work plan and project timetable. If you've decided to work with a service provider, be sure to empower them to allocate resources, budget for needed staff and technology, and make course corrections. The main point of contact for all parties should be a strong knowledge manager who is adept at flowing information in an organized and timely fashion.
Budget variances and timeline delays are all but given, and when they happen strong communication will be the glue that holds the collaboration together. Include in your plan short- and long-term agreements designed to minimize disruptions if a stakeholder decides to opt out or wants to change the direction or focus of the project.
Holding to the Vision
As the vision for the project becomes actual programs, the metrics and feedback loops created at the outset will become increasingly important. If milestones are missed or shortfalls are identified, it is imperative that tactical adjustments are made to address the problem areas. Your backbone services provider or secretariat can help determine whether unforeseen changes in the environment were responsible or whether the unsatisfactory results were caused by temporary factors. If necessary, reexamine the competitive environment, clarify your messaging, tighten up your programming, and be sure to adjust your resource allocations as appropriate.
To institutionalize the collaboration, a detailed plan again should be your guide. Staff training and development should be part of that plan, and it's important that leadership stays focused on value generation (i.e., understands the drivers of value for the project's beneficiaries).
In this era of significant global challenges, budget constraints, and results-oriented measurement, increased collaboration is inevitable. An important first step for social change leaders interested in how they can collaborate, or collaborate more effectively, is to identify gaps in their current programs and initiatives and then determine how a collaboration with other partners could help fill those gaps. Then start reaching out to partners, keeping in mind the considerations outlined above. Before you know it, your organization will be on its way to greater success and impact!