Collaborations can bring cross-sector and inter-organisation benefits but they can also create complexity for member organisations. New challenges need to be weighed against business-as-usual. Forming a collaboration does not necessarily solve all the problems.
Shifting the way your organisation functions is not easy. In effective collaborations, groups yield some autonomy, share power and resources, and work for the collective good. The viability and credibility of your group rests on understanding what to look for in a collaboration, assessing your organisation’s tolerance for risk and participation and determining your level of commitment and capacity.
Before committing to collaborate, ask your members:
- Do we need this collaboration?
Consider whether collaboration is the best approach for your identified challenges. Might the likely benefits be achieved without joining a larger group? Setting up and operating a collaboration, for collective goals and purposes, must also contribute to your individual goals. Will this help you now or for the future?
- Are we willing to change?
If your organisation is resistant to (or unlikely to create) change, early examination is needed before committing. Is the resistance able to be overcome? Real change involves work and policy adjustments, institutional relationship review and funding. Change takes time and money. Reflect with your leaders on whether change can be achieved and sustained. What is the feasibility of committing your structures, management, stakeholders and resources to long-term collaborative action?
- Do we have capability and capacity?
Collaborating requires investment of labour and effort, as well as funds and materials. Can your organisation contribute enough? These resources could be used within your own group. Further, the returns from collaborative investment could take time. Committing for the long-term is a considerable step, so professional advice on investment returns is often worthwhile during the planning stages.
- Do we have the skills to collaborate?
Different skills should be sought within your team and from outside if necessary.
Assess communications, relationship building, facilitating, negotiating and project management skills, along with cross-group engagement experience. All cross-organisation and crosssector workers will need these.
Assess collaborative skills in each organisation, including previous collaborative efforts and experience on new initiatives.
- Do we have the time and energy?
New relationships and collaborative activities take time; current relationships need sustaining.
Time is a crucial resource. Parent organisation needs are weighed alongside the collaborations’. Is time spent by individuals and the organisation worth the investment?
A high-level of intellectual energy can be required from collaborating representatives – this can reduce their focus on day-to-day activities. Are you able to be flexible? Will you commit appropriate human resources?
- Can we delegate decision making?
Representatives of collaborating organisations need enough authority to make decisions. Parent organisation support is critical, so the level of power conferred to the representative must be clearly understood. Organisations need to accept that representatives are accountable to the collaboration as well as the parent organisation.
- Are we ready for scrutiny?
Time spent at the collaborating table often leads to critical examination of each party’s values, interests talents and drawbacks. Groups must be prepared for frank exchange, to foster better collective outcomes. Representatives should not be tasked with merely portraying the parent organisation as favourable, to score points, or ‘fence-sitting’, to gain the benefits of collective knowledge without contributing. Such actions would undermine both the collaboration and the parent organisations’ reputation.
- Are we ready to be accountable?
The collaborating expectation is that participants genuinely strive for the collective goals. Organisations need to consider whether they have the structures and processes in place to support and sustain a collaboration. In addition, parent organisations must be able to defend their participation in the group effort when things get tough. Beyond a willingness for internal change, collaborators may need to show evidence of their efforts to other collaborators, and argue the case for decisions made in the collaboration projects. Parent organisation priorities and commitments must be balanced alongside those of the collaboration, but governance issues such as accounting records, evidence based reasons for decisions and legal compliance issues must be committed to by each participating organisation.