The mandate for authentic collaboration has never been stronger — when diverse organizations join forces, more expertise and resources are on hand to get a job done. But the ideal of collaboration often runs head-first into the reality of conflicting organizational cultures, power struggles, and garbled communications. Building robust relationships that can weather the storms and stresses of joint programming takes thought and effort.
Identify groups with intersecting concerns and missions and get to know them, now. Don’t find yourself having to make a cold call when you need a favor. “It’s like planting a tree,” said Barbara Floersch, grants expert and author of You Have a Hammer: Building Grant Proposals for Social Change. “A proverb tells us that the best time to do it was 20 years ago, and the second best time is now.”
Once connections are in place, put together a simple plan for keeping them fresh and strong. You might schedule a quarterly get-together with each partner to stay updated on each other’s activities. Or you might convene regular group meetings that engage all partner organizations to build a core group focused on mutual concerns.
For collaboration to work, each organization must stand to benefit substantially from the relationship. Your organization might gain expertise and resources, access to untapped segments of the community, and a competitive advantage when applying for grants. But remember, what you expect to gain you must also be prepared to give. “It’s a bit of a quid-pro-quo situation,” said Floersch. “At its best, it’s a symbiotic relationship that pays off for all participating organizations and their constituents.”
If you discover grants or other funding opportunities that seem like a fit for a partner, pass that information along. When appropriate, develop joint grant proposals to support collaborative work. Share expertise and information and stand ready with letters of support. Share physical resources such as vans or computer labs and stand ready with letters of commitment. When appropriate, share your email list or a little political influence. Send congratulations when partners succeed and offer support when they encounter challenges.
The admonition to intentionally build mutual respect and trust with good-fit community partners might seem like a well-worn verse in an old greeting card. “The idea may be commonplace, but the follow-through is not,” said Floersch. “This is not a one-and-done process. It takes time and work, but the payoff is worth the effort.”