What makes a collaborative tick?

December 24, 2020
Sindhura Chakravarty

2020 has not been the greatest year for the world: from the COVID-19 crisis and the ensuing economic downturn to forest fires, flash floods and the rise of nationalism. If this year is any indication, we are in for a slew of unexpected and predictably man-made disasters in the years to come. However, the work of social organizations in driving government accountability, mobilizing citizen action and leading relief efforts is only becoming more critical. Over the last 6 months, many nonprofits have reached out to discuss ways and means of delivering impact while building resilience and cutting costs. Oftentimes, the conversation would veer towards collaboration as a means of achieving this.

Yet, my own experience at Svarya supporting partnerships and networks suggests that collaborating takes time and effort, and despite the best intentions can often end in failure. So what makes a collaborative tick? Or more importantly, how can resource-crunched developmental organizations leverage partnerships to deepen their impact in this critical moment in time, and also for years to come?

These frequent discussions and open questions prompted us to curate a panel on “Beyond the Gyaan: the nuts and bolts of making a collaborative work” as part of an event co-hosted by Svarya and Arthan. In this virtual panel, our Founder and CEO Arjav Chakravarti discussed the ins and outs of collaborating with long-term development practitioners—Vikas Mehta from SED Fund, Samar Verma from Ford Foundation and Vinuta Gopal from Asar.

Here are some of my questions that the conversation helped answer:

When should organizations collaborate with each other?

Nonprofits are often asked to collaborate by funders, board members and wellwishers. However, they need to think strategically before making the commitment of time and effort to such an initiative. Some questions that organizations need to ask themselves before entering into a collaborative initiative of any kind are:

  • Is the group of collaborators united by a common goal or purpose?
  • Will the collaborative expand knowledge, help leverage resources or contribute in a defined way in achieving that purpose?

Vikas was of the opinion that unless the answers to both these questions are in the affirmative, collaboration may not be the best way forward.

How to decide whom to collaborate with?

Naturally, choosing the right partners is critical to successful collaboration. While people are often drawn to big names and sector leaders, according to Vinuta, smaller and newer players make for better collaborators: they are eager to learn and are more agile and responsive. More renowned organizations that are deeply entrenched within their sectors can often be inflexible and let their egos get in the way of the partnership. Collaborations led by a “big brand” could also discourage other potential partners from coming on board, if they feel like their voices will get subsumed under the former’s banner.

Another thing to keep in mind as you’re selecting partners to work with is whether your potential partners are tackling different parts of the problem you’re trying to address. Intractable developmental challenges can be solved by coming together, but only when each partner is bringing a different skill or resource to the table.

What drives effective collaboration?

There are multiple ways to run a collaboration, it can be set up as a loose network or structured as a joint venture, time bound or long lasting. Yet, no matter how it operates and what its end goal, an effective collaboration typically has the following characteristics:

  • A champion from within the collaborative: Samar’s experience suggests that an enthusiastic coordinator trusted and empowered by the wider group to take decisions is critical to the success of any collaboration. According to Vinuta, champions are most effective when they support the goals of the collaborative from behind the scenes and play a nurturing role instead of being in the limelight.
  • Strong and unifying values and guiding principles: The culture of a collaborative is the invisible force that underpins its success. Therefore it is really important to articulate a strong set of values that resonate with the team and ensure that these are upheld across the collaborative’s work and interactions.
  • Transparency and consistent communication: It is not possible for all partners to be in the same place at the same time, which is why ensuring consistent communication within the partnership is critical to building trust within the collaborative.

What are some roadblocks to avoid?

Big-brother leadership approaches typically do not work when it comes to collaborating. Individual egos and ideologies can often detract from cooperation. Just like in football, according to Samar, the focus of any collaborative needs to be on getting the ball through the goal post, i.e. achieving the objectives of the collaboration, not on the individual players. While there may be more active partners within the network or team at any given point of time, it is essential for all partners to ensure that no player feels alienated or left behind.

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