How to make 1+1 equal 3

Adam Boros (Social Investment Manager) | How to make 1+1 equal 3

“Partnership” and “collaboration” are buzzwords that one hears frequently. As social investors, we all know that working together is an important part of driving meaningful social change. Unfortunately, making partnership and collaboration work (beyond informal knowledge sharing and networking, which are relatively simple undertakings) is much easier said than done. Over the years, Tshikululu has established, joined and worked within many formal collaboratives, some successful and others not. We’ve learned many important lessons along the way, which one should keep in mind when thinking about entering into real partnership.

 Don’t collaborate for collaboration’s sake

Because we all know that partnership must be a good thing, it’s easy to fall into the trap of “forcing it”. Invitations to meetings or events to “talk about collaboration” come frequent and often. Although there may be some value in generic discussions on the topic, such talkshops rarely translate into action on the ground. Instead, we believe that making partnership really work is only possible by diligently and strategically asking yourself: what am I trying to accomplish and why will partnership help me accomplish this goal? Grantmakers for Effective Organizations states four reasons that collaboration may make sense:

  • Addressing an issue from multiple angles or strategies could help push change forward;
  • Interventions have not been coordinated enough in the past to make a lasting difference;
  • An issue or problem needs more resources or additional funding sources than one donor can provide; or
  • The context or environment suddenly requires a more united or aligned response.

In other words, collaboration isn’t always the right approach for certain activities, organisations and initiatives. Make sure it’s right for you before putting the time and energy into making it happen.

Agendas yes, egos no

Every organisation or person enters into a partnership for a reason. We all have agendas that we are trying to push, whether nefarious or (hopefully) benevolent. It’s important to keep this in mind and “go in with your eyes open” as you begin a partnership. Clearly understanding your own priorities and needs, as well as that of your partners, is crucial to making it work for everyone involved.

At the same time, it’s critical to separate your and your partners’ agendas from your egos. Collaboration is simply impossible if one of the partners is unwilling to relinquish power. Most social investors are used to having almost absolute control over decision-making. There are no shareholders to answer to, power dynamics with investees make push-back a rarity and end beneficiaries are usually far-removed from boardroom discussions. But in a well-functioning partnership, each member must learn to compromise for the sake of progress and action. If you aren’t able or willing to negotiate, bargain and sometimes settle for the sake of the greater good, partnership is not for you.

Disagreement is good

If your partnership has no dissenting voices or differing views, something is wrong. Driving social change or managing partnerships are incredibly complex tasks in their own right. If combining these two leads to nothing but smooth sailing, you must ask yourself if you’ve fallen into a trap. The Center for Evaluation Innovation identifies five of these to beware:

  • Confirmation Bias: Seeking information that confirms our beliefs and opinions, and overlooking or ignoring data that refutes them
  • Escalation of Commitment: Remaining committed to ideas and investments even when continued support outweighs the expected benefits
  • Availability Bias: Focusing on vivid and inspirational examples instead of broad, more common trends
  • Bounded Awareness: Failing to see, seek, use or share highly relevant and readily accessible information because you think you already have the answers
  • Groupthink: Desire for harmony in decision-making overrides realistic appraisal of alternative ideas and viewpoints

Although Groupthink is probably the most well-known and understood of these traps, building mechanisms to identify and surface any of them can help strengthen your work as partners.

Get your governance right

If you are entering into a formal partnership or collaboration, don’t take any shortcuts when it comes to governance. Make sure that you collectively put the requisite time and attention into building robust structures/processes. Some of the key governance issues that you should discuss are:

  • How are decisions made? Who needs to be at the table? What if there isn’t consensus? (Side note: Make sure your decision-making body has decision-makers on it. If representation within a partnership is delegated to a junior member of staff that must always get sign-off on decisions from “the powers that be” before moving forward, the collaboration will grind to a halt very quickly.)
  • Will there be regular steering committee meetings? How often will they take place? Who is responsible for organising them?
  • What time commitments are expected from the various partners? Are there financial commitments as well? (Side note: If you are pooling funding as social investors, you’ll need a robust financial management plan and agreement as well.)
  • How is conflict within the partnership managed? If the partnership breaks down, how does one exit? (Side note: In the beginning of a partnership – during the honeymoon period – it may be awkward to talk about it “not working out”. But you will potentially save yourself lots of future pain if you figure out the “divorce terms” from the outset.)

A final word

It’s easy to talk about partnership and collaboration, which is why pretty much every social investor does so. Actually, doing it is a different story altogether, which is why effective partnership and collaboration is so rare. Have no illusions: this is hard work. However, if you get it right the benefits can be enormous. Harnessing the collective power of social investors in a meaningful, well-governed way can help make real social change a reality.