Collaboration: An exercise of humanity

By Sonja C. Koehler

Collaboration: it is messy. We have to deal other people, and confront ourselves. It demands commitment, open mindedness, agility.  Our higher-selves must be present, to be honest, engaged, diplomatic, empathetic.

It is hard stuff. So why do we do it? Why do we collaborate?

Humans, like other species, are social creatures. In fact, E.O. Wilson, sociobiologist and conservationist, has proposed that one reason we have evolved to our current levels of intellect and motor skills is because we collaborate to survive, because we submit to the communal (for more, see his “The Social Conquest of Life”). It is our nature to work together. Also, working towards the collective good ultimately favors the individual. We need each other to survive – at the base level of human survival, and at the myriad of levels in our modern socioecology. That means individuals need communities, organizations need policy makers, civil society needs financial institutions, government needs business – and vice versa.

In the public sector, dwindling funds are forcing government and nongovernment agencies to join forces in order to keep their programs running. But more profoundly, we are realizing that to address the complex problems our local and global communities face with any semblance of success, we must look for equally complex strategies. Collaborations offer the broad spectrum of perspectives, expertise, and action from which long-lasting and cross-cutting solutions can arise. In other words, multiple angles of perception (from diverse members of the collaboration) beget holistic creativity, and multiple levels of action (policy, programs, behaviors) beget systemic change. Outside of primal tendencies and fiscal necessity, parties collaborate in order to achieve a goal they cannot achieve alone, in order to have greater impact.

Collaborations are known by many names, such as networks, alliances, or coalitions, and they can exist at local, regional, cross-border, or global levels. They usually have representatives from different arenas (government, business, civil society) that have a relationship with the same issue in one way or the other. They usually come together to affect change of some sort. Buzz phrases these days include collective action, collective impact, multi-stakeholder approach, and global action networks.

Steve Waddell, an expert on multi-stakeholder approaches and global action networks, has developed a concept he calls Societal Learning and Change (SLC). Waddell explains, “SLC is about changing relationships in profound ways and producing innovation to address chronic problems and develop new opportunities. These are not just inter-personal relationships, but relationships between big sections of society. Both the depth and breadth of the learning and change that SLC encompasses are unusual. SLC initiatives develop the capacity of a society to do something that it could not do before; they do the same thing for participating organisations.”

A meeting of members from the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace in Salinas. Photo by Stacy Hughes.

In a successful collaboration, the power hierarchies that traditionally evolve between siloed sectors (government, business, civil society) melt down into a “peer-based culture,” coalescing around a common goal. According to Waddell, “the SLC framework is one that emphasises ‘we’re all in this together’, that no organisation is privileged and that all are interdependent. With this simple recognition, important barriers to success are overcome and innovation can arise on a grand scale.” This common goal, which is often a vision for the greater good, is the glue that holds it all together. It is why we collaborate.

A sampling of the multi-stakeholder collaboratives that I have worked with include CEOs for Cities, a cross-sector network of city leaders to make cities more vibrant, sustainable, and economically competitive and successful (based in Chicago, IL); Chicagoans Against War & Injustice, a cross-sector peace and voter registration movement (based in Chicago, IL); and the Community Alliance for Safety and Peace, a cross-sector alliance to reduce gang violence and improve safety (based in Salinas, CA).  From these experiences, I have seen several factors that lead to the success of collaborative efforts (in no particular order):

  1. Transparency of process means greater trust in the process, greater collaboration, and thus greater impact.
  2. Flexibility of infrastructure provides the agility needed to respond to changing environments and understanding.
  3. Reduced competition allows resources to be more effectively allocated towards the common goal instead of between silos or agencies.
  4. Relationships and trust must be cultivated, as it builds organizational resiliency and a “got your back” mentality.
  5. Clear information sharing levels the playing field, contributing to a peer-based culture.

Members of a collaborative benefit from greater access to and better mobilization of resources (including information), the status that membership bestows, and the emphasis on commonality instead of separateness (creating a sense of “we” instead of “us versus them”).

In the Summer 2012 edition of the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Clutchfield & McGloed-Grant cite the “sharing of credit” for action taken collaboratively as a benefit to the individual member. Waddell and his colleague Franziska Bieri talk about how collaboratives, specifically in global action networks, use positive reinforcement as an incentive to participate, instead of the negative/punitive reinforcement that often characterizes government policies and international agreements.

Trust threads through all of these factors and benefits. According to Waddell and Bieri, trust is more important than financial and political power within a network. There is both inter-network trust and public trust (outside the network). Shared language, shared intentions, and shared competency all build trust within the network. Public trust develops through a proven track record. Trust both results from a high-functioning collaboration and reinforces it.

The level of trust can affect a collaborative differently at various points in its life cycle. For example, voluntary work teams help to build trust within a group as it is forming or transforming, but relying on volunteers is insupportable over the long term and for large-scale efforts. Dedicated (read: paid) staff to complete administrative and coordinating efforts, at the least, is vital (these staff can be paid through a member agency, with all or part of their time allocated to the collaborative; the collaborative does not necessarily need to raise funds to hire staff). Consensus decision-making requires a high level of trust and usually results in a high level of commitment to its outcome.  Yet, if there is any sense of distrust, or if alienation occurs, the collaboration might begin to disintegrate into competitive factions as alienated members seek to meet their needs outside of the collaborative. On the other hand, when trust continues to grow between members, the collaborative might consider scaling up or broadening its scope of work. Spinoff collaboration around a different yet related issue might ensue, such as taking a deeper look into one branch of the parent issue. With high levels of trust, these spinoffs become complimentary, not competitive.

While collaboration is not a new phenomenon, it is proving to be vital in addressing the complex issues that our highly networked society has faced in recent decades and will increasingly face at societal, governmental, and environmental levels. Over centuries of globalization, the world has developed around an economic framework of conquest, competition, and trade. Represented by centralized sports arenas, columned fortresses representing democracy, and glaring skyscrapers full of number crunching and trading of investments, that framework emphasizes black and white, winner and loser, insider and outsider. Collaboration presents another way of doing business, one based on relationships, inclusiveness, support, and nurture.  Collaboration is characterized by fluidity, openness, a lack of walls and barriers, and commitment to the common good. These two frameworks might symbolize humanity’s masculine and feminine sides, and we need both equally to survive. By bravely and broadly applying the principles of collaboration, humanity – and its ecology – will thrive.



Sonja Koehler’s life work is about making connections – between what happens locally to what happens globally, between vision and action, between people whose synergy creates collective good.

Sonja has partnered on diverse projects, from reducing street violence through supporting collaboration in Salinas, CA to organizing the (at the time) largest peace movement in Chicago, IL during the onset of the Iraq war. She has co-designed innovative workforce development programs for youth in Monterey County, CA and introduced secondary school students to careers in environmental protection in rural Benin, West Africa. She has published on transnational cooperation for research and development in the Mideast and North Africa, and built cross-sector networks for improving urban environments throughout the US.

Between growing up bi-culturally and internationally, and her BS in Microbiology and Masters in Public Affairs (both from Indiana University), Sonja has developed a broad, in-depth view of the world, its inhabitants, and how they work. Sonja facilitates executive and  board strategic and project planning, designs learning experiences and events, provides leadership coaching, raises funds, and acts as “brain-and-brawn-for-hire” for anything that she deems exciting.

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