August 27, 2011
So everybody talks about collaborating these days-funders do it the most and that’s understandable because there is so much need and so few resources. But what does it mean and why is it so hard? Is it really worth the effort?
Collaborating can be a scary prospect. At least, it always was for me. And I would get annoyed by the endless talk of it. It hardly ever works I thought and it’s not that good of an idea.
I once served on a committee, in another state, that was planning an annual batterer’s intervention conference. The state funder, who was sponsoring it, wanted the theme to be collaborating with probation and the courts. But our committee got nervous. We worried that if we trained probation officers, they would take our clients and programs and probably do it all wrong, too! So we decided to proceed with a conference that left them out almost entirely. Whew! Close call we thought. See, that’s how I thought back then.
Well of course, as it turned out, it was the wrong move. Our decision to avoid them did NOT protect us. It had the opposite effect. Instead of working through us, they just went around us. We weren’t better off. We were worse.
We believed that collaboration meant potentially giving up control and worse yet, some of our money. We feared that it would weaken our core philosophy, dilute our ideas and make life worse for our clients.
But what I didn’t know then- but do now- is that collaboration is not about giving away our programs or sharing our money –it’s not about losing our integrity or control or diminishing our value. It is about sharing our knowledge and expertise and we have a lot of both. It’s about approaching people with good intentions and seeing where it leads.
A legislator told a group of us recently that lawmakers are looking for “integration”. Programs that work together “add value” and get the legislature’s highest support. The opposite is also true as we have heard from lots of places. If you don’t collaborate, you won’t get funding. You may not even survive. That’s how it is today.
Still, collaborations are not always easy. We have different ideas and approaches and sometimes widely differing philosophies. Occasionally the divide is just too great. But even really hard issues can be confronted. A recent children’s summit on child welfare and DV is an example. Before the event, I was not sure whether the two groups would agree on much but I saw people actually move their positions. I saw them change their minds.
By the way, what collaboration is not, in my view, is the routine signing of MOU’s which happens all too often. Collaboration has to be real. It has to mean something.
From the days when I thought collaboration was too risky until today, I have come to realize some things. I am now convinced that the best outcome is one where people come to us for help and advice. And we listen and learn from them, too. That’s an important part-we talk and we listen. And when we increase our mutual understanding, we don’t jeopardize our position. We just make it stronger. After all, we don’t want to be viewed as an obstacle to avoid but as a solid bridge to something better.