Are We There Yet? Making Sense Out of Working Together in Times That Truly Challenge Us

(NOTE: The following is a presentation I was asked to make to a gathering of folks involved with nonprofit organizations. I’m sharing it so you can see how I came to be part of what we all do together in nonprofits, along with my conviction that the nature and importance of our efforts are in a class by themselves.)

It was a bit of a surprise when an old friend got in touch with me about this august gathering, but not so much when I really thought about it. We did something similar some years back when she was striving to embed what I thought was a remarkable, creative approach to rural development throughout the outer reaches of the place where we are today -- and I got to spend some time with her and her folks, and to try and help out a bit with ways to develop needed resources. Among other things, she asked me to join a bunch of good people in a smaller rural setting like this, and to somehow attempt to add something to think about into the mix. I seem to recall that my pitch that day was titled something like, Nothing Changes If Nothing Changes. (That theme might still work today.)

The fact that we’re here today is a testament to our not fully succeeding then, but not letting go either.  On the one hand, our dreamed of resource bus never did travel to those smaller communities; we couldn’t convince those grant makers of the brilliance of our ways toward building community health. And, on the other hand, I’m of a mind to reckon that we haven’t let go of some sense of the moxie needed to help communities help themselves. I suspect both of us still hold to such values, and you’re all here and this seems a good thing. And, it surely is good to get back together with my friend. It’s been too long.

You’ve probably seen that I’m labeling our time together now, Are We There Yet? Making Sense Out of Working Together in Times That Truly Challenge Us.  It occurred to me to suggest a longer-range context, because we have been fiddling around one way or another with some version of forming alliances since I stumbled into the embrace of the nonprofit realm over 40 years ago. 

(One look at this kisser will tell you I’ve been around something or somewhere for, lo, all those years. While I did my part in living life to the fullest to earn these wrinkles, many of them are smile wrinkles, and I can confidently relate that they are symptomatic of the joys of my experiences in and around nonprofits.  It has been a privilege for me to learn with and from the people with whom I’ve gotten to work. My friend today is a paragon, but she ain’t alone.)

Anyway, my first stumble into was with the federal government, in Chicago when there was a national effort forming to eliminate poverty, as its first spokesperson said to me, and it was the Office of Economic Opportunity, may it rest in peace, and I went to work there as a career-conditional civil service employee. Then & there I became aware of the notion of alliances, if you will, because the local organizations we were funding were marked by diversified representation from the communities they served.

My family & I left Chicago after I opted out of the civil service and determining that we were not ready to prove our righteousness by living closer to the people with whom I was by then working (to try to forge alliances). This was on the West Side of the city in a largely low-income community, courtesy of a YMCA situated there, whose history predated the changed ethnic & racial dynamics.

We moved back to CT where I had grown up, and, I lucked into a job with a Community Action Agency, one of the organizations created by the federal agency for which I had worked before. It was there that I sunk my teeth into the business of going after resources to support program development in low income settings. My point in relating this is that I worked for an organization deliberately created to forge alliances with others in a Community Action Agency (CAA).

 It was my second experience at trying to legitimize community-focused work by trying to maximize the involvement of those who were ostensibly the beneficiaries of such work in its design. It was, if you will, a counter-social worker approach to working with rather than working at.  The effective CAAs at the time embraced and housed a multiplicity of categorical or narrowly defined projects.  But the nature of the work involved constantly seeking to keep a mix of people and organizations active on behalf of eliminating poverty. Trying to stitch together some sort of collective effort, we were.

And here we are today. CAAs that succeeded in hanging on were usually folded into the makeup of local governments. Others were de-funded. And, to state the bitter obvious, poverty still persists. That’s another story, but I had sensed the power of people & organizations working together, however flawed that Great Society model was.

My take-away from this experience was that it made some kind of sense on some kind of level to imagine the benefits of pulling people and their institutions together to formulate tactics & approaches for improving the quality of life. One of my heroes, Robert Matthews Johnson, in his book, The First Charity, puts it this way, “there is one role for democracy that philanthropy can fulfill: the funding of those community arrangements that seem most likely to help people get together to find answers and make democracy work, specifically in communities where people don’t have the means to fund these arrangements themselves.”

I didn’t, of course, have the benefit of his wisdom at the time, but I liked the idea then, and like the idea now that we are in large measure discussing community arrangements when we talk of forging strategic alliances. And, I’m thinking that we need to keep at it.

When, years later, this speaker operated as a program officer at The CA Community Foundation, I mentioned to applicants again and again that it might be sensible to consider working with other organizations when approaching us for money. This was inspired by my discovery that, as one of the few area organizations that appeared willing to fund mental health programs at the time, we at the community foundation got to see their proposals in abundance. And in those proposals claims aplenty of exclusivity in their past & proposed work. Reading a raft of these goodies, we knew better. It was apparent that they were not communicating with one another, not making arrangements, if you will, while at the same time damaging their credibility in the eyes of a resource provider. Another of my experiences reaffirming that I’m on board with alliances.

But, getting back to the early days, another take-away was the realization that getting together to make arrangements was often the stuff of strife. The Model Cities Program, largely funded by the one & only HUD, was another piece of the so-called Great Society programs birthed in the middle 60s. And in the version of a “model city” where I hung out and wrote federal funding proposals, there seemed to be interminable squabbling over who was going to control the use of funds being proffered by the City Development Agency. Try as we did to convince people to get together, work together, they didn’t. I’m thinking that impulse to cover your backside and go for what you can has held up pretty well. Happened in the 60s; happened in the 80s. It’s not the stuff of working together.

This phenomenon would re-assert itself on a different level when the speaker once again is program officering at the community foundation, and would run into virtual unwillingness among other, local foundations to co-fund organizations. “We’d prefer not to . . . .” is what I once heard from another area grant maker. (Do as we say, not as we do, eh.)

So we have context, and it might even be said that we know what to do to take on the range of challenges that persist in many of our communities -- while at the same time this seems to involve as much struggling against working together as doing it. I remember reading about someone at a major foundation concluding that its past grant making had made clear that funding a program to improve housing stock in low income neighborhoods wasn’t sensible, in the absence of funding programs to improve health, wasn’t sensible in the absence of funding programs to develop people’s skills through education, wasn’t sensible in the absence of funding job development, wasn’t sensible  . . . . ., well, you get it. This would seem to paraphrase the baseline from which any attempt to form alliances must spring, one that is all-encompassing when considering interconnected challenges.

Or as Margaret Wheatley (Google her) puts it,

“We have not approached complex problems in ways that account for their dense interconnected nature.”

Or as an article titled, The Networked Nonprofit, in a previous edition of the Social Innovation Review said it: “Most social issues dwarf even the most well-resourced, well-managed nonprofit. And so it is wrongheaded for leaders simply to build their organizations. Instead they must build capacity outside of their organizations. This requires them to focus on their mission, not their organization; on trust, not control; and on being a node, not a hub.”  (I take node to mean a part of an interconnected whole.)

It doesn’t help to know that many of the resources we seek to support our work are more comfortably classified as available for discrete program channels: the beast known as categorization; the specter of program implementation rather than community engagement; the avoidance of much money for general support among ostensibly progressive funders.

To take this further, we can consider one of the important findings of an evaluation of earlier work of what was labeled Comprehensive Community Initiatives by The Aspen Institute. “At the same time the tools that are available for the majority of community change efforts across the country have been cast in the old mold of discrete program activities. To a large extent, funders still operate as grant makers rather than partners in the change process; funding is still allocated in short-term intervals; technical assistance is still provided on a problem-specific, temporary basis; evaluation is still focused on measuring broad indicators that can be unambiguously linked to particular interventions; and capacity and community building are still considered secondary to putting programs on the ground.”

I’m not mentioning these to throw a wet blanket over the prospect for creative work in concert with one another. But, it seems to me that we need a clear-eyed look at where we have been, and to acknowledge that we need to take this into consideration when we build yet more community arrangements. 

Bringing this up to speed, when trying to figure out how to prepare for this time with you, I continued plunging into what I could locate in the way of documentation about forming strategic alliances and found chapter and verse. Did I ever. The lore of the realm confirms the notion that there is no absence of information when it comes to our subject. (Or as mentioned to proposal writers who complain there are no data to back up their arguments for money, there is what I have called a tyranny of data. It gets confusing and overwhelming.)

Anyway, one of the first things that struck me when I dug around, for example, was the lexicon. We could characterize what we see defined as strategic alliances on today's agenda as joint efforts, coalitions, commissions, federations, confederations, consortiums, collaborations, leagues, partnerships, or task forces, strategic restructuring, or mergers.  Not to mention community arrangements. We use lots of language to describe working together.

Let me share some more of what I learned in my readings.

It appears that the concept of, let’s call it collaboration, has taken on a life of its own (as another of these concepts du jour) that seem to pop up over & over in the nonprofit arena (think sustainability and the logic model) A piece in a previous issue of Social Innovation, titled The Reality Underneath The Buzz of Partnerships offers this: “Foundations seemed to encourage, and sometimes mandate, partnerships not necessarily because partnering was the best way to achieve a particular set of objectives given a specific context and problem, but because partnering fulfilled the foundations’ view of how the social sector should operate.”

So, if top-down, funder-pushed alliances don’t work, as implied, what has to be offered as an alternative with any prospect of success is an arrangement that is hatched & incubated among the cast of characters that would collaborate, that seem to think it might make sense in their own version of community. Or, as the same article says, “partnering is warranted when two or more organizations have complementary missions, when they can bring different resources to the table, and when these resources are crucial for achieving some objective” about which they agree.

Another article says that small nonprofits can get more impact out of limited resources by coordinating some aspects of their work with related providers.

And, Michael Gilbert, he of The Gilbert Center & Nonprofit Online News, mentions that

“the great secret of successful collaboration is that the only agreement you have to have is on who’s going to do what. It’s that simple.”

And here we have a nugget from Jon Pratt, director of the MN Council of Nonprofits and a sage soul in my humble opinion: “Most nonprofits share the key characteristics of organizations that can most benefit from networks: resource dependency, changing environment, complex external relationships, high need for trust relationships with suppliers (including funders), need for flexibility, and the need to influence policy.”

By any number of measures & perspectives, we can agree that we need to keep looking for ways to work effectively together. If we take into consideration what Margaret Wheatley once again offers us, “In this brave new world, we’re making it up as we go along. If we knew how to solve our problems, we would have done so by now,” we surely have license to keep at this.

So, in designing the next generation of big solutions to big challenges, here’s some food for thought, gleaned from what I read and what I’ve experienced:

When you, the originators, get to the table, ask yourselves who’s not there and needs to be. (Might be interesting to consider today, this very day, as we look around this room.)

Begin with clarity about who’s going to work together, and absolutely make certain that time is taken to establish trust amongst the players. I discovered that the research about previous attempts to forge alliances dealt with this issue more than any other. As what I read made repeatedly clear, if you want strategic alliances to work, really work, you’ll focus on trust, not control. And, by the way, this means you must first know and trust yourself in your organization or community before building trust beyond yourself. It won’t come easy, my long experience in our midst, tells me. (Look at the power differential between grant makers and grant seekers to see the nature of the challenge.)

If you think about it, this means that there ought to be clarity about the standards by which all those involved are judged. As another article put it, honesty, dependability, making & keeping commitments, & courage come to mind. As does gratitude for what each of the partners or players will have to offer one another.

And again, for the nth time, know and accept that you will make mistakes, so make them the basis for more learning, not recrimination. (I am reminded of previous work with Navy where we tried utilizing conflict to promote learning rather than the commonplace notion of managing it, which, to me, suggests sweeping something under the rug, stuffing away any learning.)

Remember, in spite of the weight of so-called conventional wisdom, “that strategically allied organizations don’t need to be more businesslike or more bureaucratic, but to excel at making connections and bringing together people and organizations that probably would not otherwise work together.”  Jon Pratt, again.

Embrace the concept of a lateral approach rather than a vertical one. One successful affordable housing collaboration (in Egypt of all places) spent considerable time and resources in selecting partners, thereby not needing to rely on traditional top-down approaches to control them. Instead there are trusted equals who play a central role in delivering the goods. And they build more affordable housing for more people who need it there than in any other setting where the same thing is going on.

I loved the way another piece on Nonprofits as Network Organizations said that “nonprofits managed this way look at the world from the perspective of their relationships. The starting point for setting this strategy is not the traditional SWOT analysis, but community mapping, laying out the organization’s current situation and needed connections.”

Maybe it will prove out that networks don’t require more resources, but rather a better use of existing resources. Maybe, just maybe. But, at the same time, I read consistently that alliances, coalitions, collaborations are not cure-alls.  I read that collaborative efforts are not necessarily efficient nor money-savers. Think about it -- if getting together to take on community challenges involves casting a wider & wider net to involve more operatives, this will take time and resources.

For the 98th million time, do the planning and communicating, value the planning and communicating, take the time for the planning and communicating. In fact, why not decorate the creation of your strategic alliance with resources devoted to nothing more than the up-front planning before considering any more of what will be needed. Think about it this way, as embodied by something else I read on the way into all of this, and I quote: “A planning process is needed to ensure that partners have really assessed the advisability of the partnership beforehand, worked through the difficult issues about rewards and responsibilities before the actual project begins, and are clear about each other’s commitments and expectations.” (Here’s a cogent argument for a planning grant in the mix.)

And as far as that goes, remember that moving from planning to action doesn’t just happen.  So, we’re really talking about planning for action.

And, in all this, never lose sight of where all this is taking your alliance. In other words, start where you want to end. Start your planning for action when it’s clear what your action is for. Push your efforts up against a known and agreed upon vision of the future. (In past program development workshops, we’ve often discussed the concept of program development beginning with the outcomes that define the success of participants, and then working our way back to day one of the planned process to bring about such success.)

I thought the director of a leadership organization on aging put it well when she related that a coalition/collaboration/alliance is not a formal organization. She went on to say that alliances are “more like orchestras composed of autonomous & talented people linked together by a conductor and a score.” Nice.

Think of the conductor in the example as a facilitator. I would strongly suggest the virtue of such types to help the collection of the headstrong avoid butting heads – or at least reminding them they’re doing it when more important work exists.  

Some years ago, I proposed to the lead agency/grant recipient such a role for myself in the embrace of a project funded to foster working together among a group of management support organizations. It didn’t happen, fell on deaf ears when it was presented to the cast of characters, and the program largely devolved into everyone squalling for their share of the goodies. What was to have been a study in collaboration was instead tantamount to spreading grant funds around.  

This serves only to reemphasize the need to invest in facilitation – if we would legitimately work together -- and take into consideration a notion the value of which I keep learning & re-learning, that of principles over personalities, if you want to make progress in fostering community arrangements.

Last, I want to steer this conversation back to something that has been near & dear to me in the work I continue to do as a trainer & consultant. On numerous occasions while I was reading up for this event, I saw reference to the importance of always staying focused on your own organization or group’s mission when entertaining the possibility of forming an alliance. This seems essential if such an arrangement is going to work out. Put another way, it makes no sense to abandon your mission – the basis by which you justify your organization’s very existence – in the name of some other perceived benefit (grant funds, for example).

Yes indeedy.  When doing my work on resource development, I constantly refer to the seductive nature of going after grants (as embodied in someone else’s money that we might secure) as it relates – or does not – to the presumed sanctity of a given organization’s mission. Put another way, there will be grants you have no business pursuing because there isn’t a values mesh. So, this would seem to establish the importance of an organization’s mission. And therein lies the rub.

 If it seems reasonable to begin at the beginning when it comes to nonprofit pursuits, then we can say this should include getting clear on the mission because it ought to frame every occasion when we decide, for example, to pursue grants.

So let’s consider an actual mission statement as in “Our mission is to build local collaborations to support local arts organizations.”

And another: “The mission of the XYZ Public Benefit Organization is to be a permanent partnership among the public, private & academic sectors to assist local public schools with primary emphasis on the problems of at-risk students.”

What’s troubling about these mission statements? Each statement emphasizes process (activities) rather than outcomes (successes).

In the first case, leaving aside a sense of vagueness, the focus is on building collaborations rather than supporting organizations. It could/should be restated:

Our mission is to ensure that local arts organizations thrive through the creation of a variety of collaborations as well as other means to be determined by our unfolding experiences.

In the second, leaving aside the vagueness and negative connotation of the term “at-risk,” the focus is on the partnership and working with the public schools rather than the students. It could/should be restated:

“The mission . . .. is to help students in local public schools overcome the difficult challenges they face through creation of a permanent task force . . .. to assist the schools.”

So, it seems to me that we need to clean up our own side of the street before we decide to cross it. If we don’t understand and value the precept that our organizations exist to help our folks help themselves – by what might be any number of means – rather than putting the emphasis on the process/the means, we’d best be careful interacting into alliances. Why double up the misguided?

As you might figure, I’m inclined to believe that the mission of nonprofits is not simply to offer participants high quality services, but also – and more importantly- to help participants help themselves to attain some measure of what they would agree is success in overcoming what gets in their way – to fully participating in democracy, Bob Johnson would say it. Doesn’t seem to me to matter if it’s an arts organization or an effort to organize a bunch of people on the margins. If we can get this straight in one organization, imagine what we might accomplish when we work together in a bunch of organizations.  

Anya Farquhar