Best Practices of Collaboration

Over its years of experience, the Connect U.S. Fund gleaned lessons for when and how collaboration works best at different stages of the collaboration lifecycle: launch, growth/sustenance/crossroads, and success/dissolution. While one may be able to extrapolate that an imminent policy opportunity or threat is most effective at rallying individuals around a shared issue, collaborations may succeed even if that imminent need is not present. At the core of great collaborations is that they consistently add value to their members and that the time investment feels worth the opportunity cost of participating in the process.

Consider carefully whether your goal will be enhanced by collaboration and whether you have the resources – including funding and staff – to do it right. Is the goal to create a broader community among which to share information? Or is it to move forward specific policy goals? Also, consider the elements below before you embark on a collaboration and take the long-view. Some collaborations can be quick – a campaign to ratify a treaty – while others take years to develop, especially when behavioral changes need to change.

One of the key ingredients before launching a collaborative – especially when you engage in a more long-term collaborative process – is not to rush the relationship-building stage. Choose your participants carefully. It may take a year or more to set the key relationships up for success, but it will be worth it. Finally, do not force collaborations; not all situations will benefit from them. Know the difference.

Here are some of the most vital best practices that convenors may find useful as they build, grow, and wind down or spin off collaborations.

LAUNCH

  1. Clarify Expectations About the Group’s Purpose

Collaborations can only be successfully launched when there is a clear communication of need from critical stakeholders. Collaboration for collaboration’s sake can be a waste of time, but through mapping and careful consideration of the field, it can be a powerful tool for advocacy. The Connect U.S. Fund’s collaborative efforts were established for three primary reasons:

  • An external advocacy opportunity or threat demanded collective voice and action.
  • Policy-related work across a sector was being hampered by the lack of information-sharing amongst organizations. This manifested in a redundancy of resources/efforts and/or simply less effective initiatives across the sector.
  • Individuals perceived a critical gap or neglected issue that the sector was not sufficiently addressing.
  • Recognition on groups working on similar or related goals that their work would be enhanced through collective sharing of information or advocacy.

Because the Connect U.S. Fund staff was so close to its stakeholder community, they understood well what the existent gaps were. Once the need has been established and the group is launched, what tends to hamper these groups is a lack of transparency in communicating the goals and the necessary strategies needed to drive those goals. When individuals have vastly different reasons for participating in a collaborative process, the group will invariably experience significant member drop-out. For example, if members of a collaboration expect the group to decide on a policy ask and then drive towards this ask, meetings comprised only of “information sharing” will quickly lose their interest. This clarification of expectations is not a one-time communication - it must take place repeatedly throughout the group’s lifecycle, particularly in the beginning and at significant crossroads in the group’s decision-making (see Best Practice #9, “Communicate the Value of Collaboration”).

Tips for the convenor:

  • Conduct a mapping exercise of all stakeholders prior to the group’s launch and, once the group has been created, of its members in order to thoroughly understanding their needs.
  • Create a shared “mission statement” at the onset of the group, establishing benchmarks and success metrics for the group’s work that can be checked against over time.
  • Intentionally and regularly inquire about the value of the group’s work at key milestones, making substantive changes in the group’s direction (or existence), if necessary.
  • Outline how often the group will meet based on the group’s goals and success benchmarks.
  • Define triggers that would call the group’s existence into question.
  1. Get the Right People in the Room

Curating the “right” people is critical to the success or failure of a collaborative process. In the Connect U.S.  Fund’s experience, harnessing the power of diversity was critical to success. Different groups have different goals, so the “right” people will depend on the goals of the group. This entailed creating collaborative groups comprised of the following menu of options:

  • Funders – to fund efforts/projects generated in the collaborative and to offer philanthropic perspectives on issues;
  • Issue experts – to lead the idea-generation and make specific policy recommendations;
  • Process experts – to lead strategic planning and see the forest from the expert-specific trees;
  • Those with senior Executive Branch and legislative/Hill connections – to offer close tracking of emerging opportunities, targeted educational opportunities, garnering meetings with policymakers;
  • Media capacity – to make sure experts are talking in a way that non-experts understand, to conduct outreach, develop talking points/framing of issues, etc.;
  • Representatives of grassroots groups – to bring citizen action to bear and give perspective from the field; and
  • Representatives from diverse constituencies – to bring alternative viewpoints on the same issue (e.g., faith or youth perspective on climate change).

The diversity of the group (i.e., diversity of tactics, expertise, constituencies), combined with the selection of high-level, externally-respected leaders, is critical to the collaboration’s success.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Tie the selection of coalition members to the group’s goals. Identify the roles that you need to fill to achieve these goals. 
  • Assess the utility of a broad base versus a targeted core group of participants. If a collaboration is focused on a targeted or time-bound issue, it may be prudent to more narrowly define the group. The more people, the stronger the collective voice, but the more invariably messy the process. 
  • Keep in mind the level of seniority you need in the room to achieve the group’s goals. If you do require senior level people, you likely will want to narrow the group across the board to senior level representation and limit the quantity of meetings. You can also weave in more senior people at tactical moments in the group’s strategic plan/campaign.
  • Select your “ambassadors” early and strategically. These are individuals who will convey respect and gravitas for the importance of the group and will be important figures in recruiting future members. These people can be included in a Steering or Executive Committee.
  • Assess early the need for the participation of large institutions early on in the process as they may be hesitant to join these collaborative groups. This may be because they do not have the same needs as smaller organizations (i.e., they may already have a “seat at the policy table”) or because their internal processes make it challenging to align with the goals and outputs of a diverse collaboration. If so, elicit their buy-in at an early stage and/or identify what would compel them to join.
  • Identify any key “validators” (diverse voices) that may add to the group’s effectiveness.
  1. Staff Up

The biggest mistake deep collaborations make is not recognizing the depth of support that a collaborative body needs to thrive. By adding convening and other responsibilities onto an already overworked staff member, the collaboration will likely suffer. At least one full-time staff person is often necessary to sustain a collaboration; this greatly reduces the time burden of collaboration for members and supports the work of the governance body (e.g., the Steering Committee). This staff person will act to support and to drive forward the group’s work. This includes significant time invested in meeting preparation, creating agendas and ensuring the buy-in and follow through of critical stakeholders. This may also include creating unique opportunities to amplify the voices of members (e.g., draft op-eds, press releases highlighting members, coordinate meetings with policymakers, set up panels). Such staff work will greatly reduce the criticism that meetings – and the collaboration – are a waste of time.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Ensure that the staffing supports the needs of the group. Do you need a facilitator? Do you need an implementer to support members in pursuing the group’s initiatives? Do you need a coordinator?
  • Engage in a conversation with group members at the launch of the group about what the role of the coalition staff will – and won’t – be. Make it clear that the staffer is tasked to provide value-added but is not meant to replace work that coalition partners themselves would otherwise be doing.
  • Create a job description that addresses competencies and tasks for the staff person. Ensure that this job description accurately reflects what one person can accomplish (e.g., oftentimes, the facilitator and the coordinator are two different people).
  • Be clear on to whom your staff person reports and how s/he will be supervised, including the relationship with the governing body. Don’t put this individual in a potential crossfire situation with multiple bosses.
  • Think about the time commitment that everyone will need to make and ensure sure you have staff resources to pick up the slack. Demonstrate to the governance body that being a leader is not a heavy lift, but rather value-added to their work. The coordinator will do the brunt of administrative work and take guidance from leadership.
  • If other members (e.g., the co-chairs) are playing substantive convening roles that are very time-intensive, you may consider paying for a percentage of their time.
  1. Create Decision-Making Vehicles Early and Communicate Them Clearly

If a decision-making body is not structured and appointed early on, simple decisions can turn into opaque and unclear processes. This, in turn, will quickly dissolve the trust of coalition members.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Clarify the governance structures early in the process and differentiate between the roles of the convenor and the decision-making body.
  • Governance should represent those that comprise the network and/or well respected players in the field. When serving, these individuals should be explicitly held accountable to the collaborative group and not their respective organizations. Efforts should be made to limit the voice of the biggest/most recognizable organizations wielding the lion’s share of the power.
  • Convene a strong governance structure, like a Steering Committee. The larger your collaboration, the stronger your Steering Committee needs to be. Once empowered by the larger group, the Steering Committee (oftentimes a microcosm of the diverse expertise of the larger group) can create the strategic plan and direct the coordinator on implementation of the work plan. This structure allows for moving forward with decisions provided they do not deviate from the work plan. This adds a feeling of productivity to the group without blindly consolidating the power within the governance structure.
  • Demonstrate to the governance body that being a leader is not a heavy lift, but rather value-added to their work. The coordinator will do the brunt of administrative work and take their guidance from leadership.
  • If the group is one which will transcend a time-limited engagement, a variant on a “charter” should be documented, offering process expectations for rotating governance structures and how decisions are made, the longevity of the group, etc.

GROWTH, SUSTENANCE & CROSSROADS

  1. Be Prepared to Fund Key Capacity Gaps in Collaboration

In building a coalition, make sure to match tactics to the resources necessary to achieve the group’s goals. Are you planning an advocacy campaign? What (media, stakeholder) outreach, networking or capacity-building is necessary to bolster the chances of the group successfully attaining its goals? Collaboration isn’t just about ideas; rather, it is about selling them to make sure they get implemented. That can require new staff and new capacities for organizations that are already over-stretched. Plan for them and make sure funds are available.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Conduct a “SWOT” (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis early on to help you identify the capacities and gaps among the coalition members; fundraise to fill these gaps. Funders are more likely to fund a collaborative effort – especially when you can point out the specific gaps – because it has been validated by several organizations and adds-value to ongoing efforts.
  • Provide capacity-building trainings to bolster the coalition and invest in long-term improvement of the NGOs working on an issue area. In our experience, NGOs continued to want and need trainings on media and messaging; fundraising; recruiting key validators; fundraising; strategic planning; lobbying guidelines (i.e., what you can and cannot do as a 501(c)3 organization); and stakeholder analysis.
  • Offer additional support to grow the size of the organization, if there is a need.
  • If your resources do not match the needs or goals, are there other organizations with which to partner, either entirely or on specific projects? For instance, are there groups that could help with writing talking points and devising media strategies in exchange for access to a vast grassroots network?
  1. Pre-empt Competition

In an area where the groups you are collaborating with are competing for relatively scarce resources, tension and suspicion can emerge between group members. There is no science for how to pre-empt this natural human response, but ensuring that the convenor is perceived as neutral, a distinct value add, and in it for the success of the collaboration is key.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Ensure that funders are included in some way in the collaboration - as members, as observers, as informants - so they can see the value of collaboration around particular issues. This may illustrate the need for available funding for collective/collaborative work.
  • Demonstrate the value of the collaboration by bringing new funders to the table who believe in the power of collaboration on the particular issue or in general. This can also be enhanced by the convenor bringing funding to the table and using the resources to support the work of the group.
  • Communicate transparently how funding is utilized to support the collaboration’s work. Staff-time for collaboration should be covered by funders. Proposals and budgetary information, projects and budgets should be developed openly and collaboratively, with opportunity for all to have their voices heard. Emphasize that funding to the collaboration should not come at the expense of grants to specific members.
  • Focus the collaboration on content that is in addition to (not in competition with) work that members are already doing – to amplify existing work and increase its impact.  
  • Ensure that members of the group are first and foremost showcased. Support staff (e.g., coordinator, convenor) should do what they can to stay in the background, ensuring a consistency of offering credit to the group rather than highlighting the convening organization.
  • Use “large group bargaining power” to secure higher-level meetings than individual advocates and organizations would normally be able to get on their own.
  • Take the time to develop consensus policy recommendations and a collective “ask,” a process that can take months. This will facilitate an ongoing dialogue with senior policymakers.
  1. Strategically Weather External Opportunities/Threats/Crossroads

In the world of foreign policy, there are inevitable shifts in the changing landscape that “derail” a group’s goals and projected trajectory. This is a natural course of events, but even the most experienced convenor can feel challenged when identifying the best way to maximize the opportunity and/or keep the group engaged and effective during these emerging situations.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Constantly challenge the assumptions on which your goals are based; even though it may have taken months or even years to develop these, political circumstances change rapidly, and so should your goals adapt to these changes.
  • Confidently identify the “derailment” early on and guide the group through an efficient decision-making process about how to engage with this situation.
  • Identify early in the group’s formation what “off-ramps” are acceptable to the group in the face of external developments (e.g., temporary functional shift, shut down) and how the group will address those situations.
  • Nimbly shift from one role of the group (e.g., campaign development) to another function (e.g., information sharing) when the group members are occupied with another – more timely or important – opportunity, such as occurred with the Arab Spring.
  1. Navigating Stakeholder Diversity

Dynamic and successful collaborations are often deeply mired in differences of opinion. In that diversity can be a collaborative group’s greatest asset; it can equally be its downfall. Differences of opinion must somehow coexist alongside a shared platform from which the group advances its work and problem solves around complex issues.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Name early on in the group’s lifecycle the challenges and benefits of the group’s diversity. Discuss with the group how to navigate those challenges in order to not be encumbered by excessive process and discussion. As a group, come to agreement about how decisions will be made (e.g., by consensus, negative polling, via email or in person, etc.).
  • In a group that both benefits and suffers from its diversity, form sub-groups that allow for like-minded individuals or organizations to naturally collaborate. Focus the greater power of the entire group on the overarching goal.
  • During difficult discussions, it is sometimes worth hiring a professional facilitator to help the group navigate sticky decisions.
  • Check-in early and pre-emptively. Hopefully, when there are tough decisions to be made, the convenor will be savvy enough to know which individuals need to be bought-in early or have extra attention paid to their views so that when the decision is actually made, there are no insurmountable roadblocks. Those who want to stay in the group but don’t agree with a certain decision can be noted in the minutes.
  • Remember that since collaborations are voluntary, members who don’t agree with the consensus can simply leave the group. There are times when this is necessary for the group’s effectiveness and cohesion.
  1. Communicate the Value of the Collaboration

Collaborations often dissolve when members no longer experience their value. Sometimes, this simply happens as the need evolves, while other times, this is simply a failure on the part of the convenors to communicate transparently and provide value to members. This “value” must invariably be tied to the goals of the collaborative body.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Identify and document early-on what the members will need to feel the effort invested will be “worth” their time. Are they seeking an advocacy soapbox? Collaboration opportunities? Increased access to expert opinion/information? Use an intake form to document these needs.
  • Check in on the group’s success milestones over time, communicating internally and externally about the group’s progress.
  • Don’t be afraid to admit the collaboration is no longer needed or must shift dramatically.

SUCCESS and DISSOLUTION

  1.  Clarify and Communicate Collaboration Success

Shifting policy is at best a nebulous and meandering process. It often feels like one step forward, one step back, non-linearly circling the goal. Success is about buy-in from unlikely parties, shifting the communal language around an issue, mainstreaming talking points, and much more. This winding process invariably hinders easy articulation of “success.” Identifying how to talk about progress and milestones in the context of long-term change is critical to the buy-in of group members, funders, and other stakeholders investing in the existence of this body. Connect U.S. Fund grantees utilized the Aspen Institute’s Advocacy Progress Planner – a free online tool – to create a strategic plan with quantifiable goals and identifiable benchmarks; this helped the grantees measure progress towards their ultimate advocacy goals, which allowed their collaboratives to thrive and empowered them when reporting to supporters (coalition members, funders, policymakers). 

Regularly evaluate whether the collaboration can stand on its own and evolve into its own organization.  When the answer is yes – in terms of long-term purpose, staff capacity and funding – try to spin it off.

Tips for the convenor:

  • Articulate your “theory of change” around policy change. While this theory of change may not be linear, there are certain ingredients that are critical towards the eventual adoption of a policy shift and its resulting impact.
  • Spell out to critical stakeholders how collaboration shifts the ability to attain these outcomes.
  • Develop clear, measurable outcomes and communicate “celebratory” milestones to internal and external stakeholders.
  • Regularly evaluate whether collaborations are ready to be spun off as independent organizations, including with the prospect of multi-year funding, if needed.
  1.  When It’s Time, Dissolve

Collaboration for its own sake is not worth the opportunity cost. It can burn bridges among allies, force resource-intensive investments that can sour funders and participating organizations, and limit collaboration potential in the future when the need is critical. Signals of the time to dissolve may be obvious from the outside, but for the insider – both for participating members and the convenor – this can sometimes be a challenging decision. Despite the group’s past successes, when a group decides to dissolve, there can be a tendency for the time investment to feel like a “waste,” to allow concern about where the next iteration of funding will come from to influence the decision, and for egos to obfuscate what the sector really needs. It is at this time when the convenor must hold strong to her/his role – to “zoom out” and do what is best for the group – and for the sector.

Tips for the convenor:

  • The convenor and leaders of the group must regularly assess if there is still a need for the goals of the group and a “demand” from participating members, particularly in times of heightened conflict and/or group sluggishness.
  • You may want to find an outside facilitator to help with the dissolution process, as sometimes those on the inside have too much skin in the game to play an objective role navigating this decision.
  • Inquire, throughout this assessment process, whether the external resources available for funding this type of work have shifted since the group’s launch and if this impacts the potential for the group’s success. This may manifest itself in increased feelings of competition and territoriality amongst group members.
  • Pre-empt the loss of trust and dissolve early. Once you lose the trust of your members, it can have profound consequences, both for your relationship with participating organizations and for members’ relationships with each other.
  • When the collaboration becomes self-sufficient, step out. However, such instances are difficult to achieve, as most collaboratives will need continued support.
  • If there is funding tied to the collaborative, give plenty of notice of a dissolution to those receiving funds so they have time to secure other sources of funding.

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