Making Effective Collaboration Possible

This blog post first appeared in Philanthropy Front and Center Cleveland.

Are you tired of hearing that you should collaborate? It’s understandable. As philanthropic leaders, it can sometimes feel like we’re told to collaborate as often as children on a playground are told to share. We get it. Enough already.

But what if someone told you to avoid collaboration if possible? Now I’ve got your attention, right? That’s the bright orange warning in the opening pages of the Fund for Our Economic Future’s Collaboration: A Handbook. “Collaboration should only be pursued when it is absolutely necessary to achieve the desired change,” writes Chris Thompson, the Handbook's author. and former director of regional engagement at the Fund. “Collaboration should never be the goal. It is a means to the goal.”

And then, he says this: “Just because collaboration is needed doesn’t mean it is possible.”

I’ll let that sink in for a minute.

As the president and CEO of Stark Community Foundation, a long-time member of the Fund, I’m quite familiar with Chris’s musings on the value of collaborative cross-sector work. Indeed, the Fund is the very epitome of a collaboration and a collaborator. But it wasn’t until I read the Handbook that this oft-esoteric concept made real concrete sense.

Chris shares the ins-and-outs and ups-and-downs of a decade-plus of collaboration experience and distills how to know if the conditions are right for a collaboration to be possible; what is needed to make it successful; how to get it back on track if it steers off-course; and, perhaps most importantly, how to evaluate if it’s working. There are checklists and techniques and how-to guides. Lastly, there’s also a whole website devoted to the handbook and its contents, though I highly encourage you to carry around a hard copy wherever you go.

The Handbook is more than just lip service. It's more than just CoBLABoration: "The evil cousin of collaboration, this made-up term, first shared with our Fund by Cleveland Metropolitan School District CEO Eric Gordon, describes the all-too-common experience of what happens when stakeholders engage in a poorly designed collaboration that is unable to transition from talk to action." When put into practice, the advice from this 60-page guide is relevant and useful.

Take, for example, where I work in Stark County. Almost two years ago, a group of civic leaders came together to share their respective strategic plans for the community, to better understand what each was doing, and to discuss how they might help each other be successful. Each time we met, we built trust with one another, and those early conversations grew into more formal planning. 

Today, we are a full-fledged cross-sector collaboration that includes: my organization, The Canton Repository, the Canton Chamber of Commerce, the United Way of Greater Stark County, the Akron-Canton Regional Airport, the city of Canton, the Pro Football Hall of Fame, and the Stark Development Board. It’s the first time I’m aware that we’re envisioning the future of our community together, as a whole. We’re developing shared responsibility for our future, and we wouldn’t be so advanced in our discussions without the collaboration guidance of the Fund.

Of course, the Handbook doesn’t actually make the act of collaboration any easier. It’s still hard, messy, complex work. At least now, the next time someone tells you to collaborate, you can actually walk through whether the right preconditions exist for a collaboration to be possible, and if they do, how to make sure it’s successful.

Mark Samolczyk

MARK SAMOLCZYK is president and CEO of Stark Community Foundation and vice chair of the Fund for Our Economic Future. He's the primary representative of the Stark Community Foundation in the community and the leader in achieving the Foundation’s vision and mission. Mark joined the Foundation in October 2009.



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Want to learn more about nonprofit collaboration? Click over to Collaboration Hub, which links to publications, videos, podcasts, and blog posts, and the Nonprofit Collaboration Database, a comprehensive, searchable collection of 650+ profiles on four types of collaborations: back-office consolidation, joint programming, mergers, and alliances.