Four Lessons Learned from Collaboration

Posted by Jim King on February 26, 2016

We’ve seen a renewed interest in non-profit collaboration (see articles in Shelterforce here, here, and here) but effective and successful collaboration takes more than simply finding like-minded people to walk with you. 

Working with others, especially on a large scale, requires real work and upkeep. Here are four important lessons that we’ve learned over the years that will benefit any organizations, whether they’re seasoned in collaboration or starting out for the first time.

Trust: Trust, especially in a central figure, is essential for collaboration. To build solid and long lasting trust, you have to know what makes trust tick--and that’s vulnerability. By being willing to be vulnerable first, you are demonstrating your commitment to the common goal over your own self-interest. Building trust takes time, but acts of good faith help to start the relationship on a positive note and can help to speed up the process. 

Clear Goals: Establishing clear goals allows for effective planning.
One of the most humbling moments for Fahe occurred several years ago when we realized that we could build more houses, but weren’t. Our membership network was producing 2,000 units of housing per year, but at the time central Appalachia had an estimated 100,000 units of substandard or overcrowded housing and 17 percent of homeowners and 33 percent of renters were cost burdened.

If we were going to move forward and become more effective, we knew the goal couldn’t just be the idea to provide safe, quality housing, it had to be tangible. So we issued a performance challenge to reach 8,000 units of housing annually.  With that in mind, we were able to identify redundancies and underutilization of resources across the Network.  We learned the only way to reach our goal was to develop new systems that would allow organizations to focus on their core competencies and enable them to offer their particular expertise as a service to those who lacked their skillset. That clear goal helped to bring growth and increased capacity across the network and we were able to reach our goal of 8,000 units annually one year early. 

Objectives will change with time but having clearly defined goals each and every time that happens allows everyone the opportunity to realize their role and the chance to work at a higher efficiency.

Strong Leadership: Strong leadership with collaboration means leading the process, not the people. When it comes to problem solving and decision making, leaders are there to steer the group and help them focus on finding a solution together.  While leaders should be catalysts for ideas, ultimately they are the cohesive bond among members. People in leadership positions should ultimately be the ones who work to earn the trust and respect of their peers. The beauty of collaborative partnerships is access to people with the skills, ability to communicate, and desire to take the role.

Partnership: While not a partnership in the true sense of the word, effective collaboration requires that all members treat each other as equals and with respect. It is important to remember that no one group is truly in charge. In most collaboration there will be someone that holds the position of organizer or at the very least, several strong members whose voices are heard above the rest. If there is an effective way to tackle a problem, offering expertise or resources will produce better results than being prescriptive.  In the Fahe network we have some members who are excellent builders of energy efficient housing and some who know the policies behind funding like the back of their hands. They are available as resources to each other if needed. By treating one another with respect and maintaining regular and clear communications, you build a strong community with high buy-in to the central mission.

We're excited by the growth of collaboration across non-profits and other organizations.  We believe strongly that by working together, we can do bigger and better things than going alone. Our hope is that more groups can come together to tackle the larger social problems we face in America. We welcome your comments here to let us know how your organizations are collaborating.

Photo credit: bwright923 via flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

About the author more ยป

Jim King is president and CEO of Fahe, a regional, non-profit, financial intermediary based in Berea, Kentucky that provides collective voice and access to capital for the creation of housing and promotion of community development in Appalachia. President of Fahe for 15 years, he has launched multiple new social enterprises, including equity funds for low-income housing tax credits, consulting services, and a regional mortgage broker network, JustChoice Lending. Mr. King is now partnering with other regional entities to combat persistent poverty.

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