We’ve all been there.
A group of committed nonprofit organizations gathered around a common cause or problem. Each has a great stake in the outcome, and each offers a critical part of the solution. The imperative to do this together is clear to all at the outset, the energy to take it on is high, and then… things get murky, and frustration begins to set in. Tepid participation erodes momentum, and organizations begin to look for the exit door.
To be certain, collaboration is by nature complex; it is hard enough to create alignment within a single organization, much less a combination of organizations with different cultures and missions. But why do we keep falling into the same traps over and over again? Why have we not developed the muscles as a sector to perform this vital collective function, increasingly recognized as the only way to effectively address the deep-seated, structural issues facing our communities?
A frustrating part of the answer is that we, as a sector, simply don’t have enough collective experience with good collaboration to be able to pull it off well consistently. And, lacking the experience (and associated motivation to continue to collaborate), we neglect the cultivation of organizational capabilities for (and orientation to) collaboration, which means we are less likely to be a positive contributor to future collaborations – hastening a negative cycle. Grantmakers for Effective Organizations makes this point in Building Collaboration from the Inside Out: “to partner with anyone for anything, an organization needs effective internal culture, practices, and priorities that can open and orient its board, staff and volunteers toward being better collaborators.”
The imperative to collaborate will not diminish, it will only get stronger. So how do we accelerate our progress, especially given that collaboration takes so many different forms? It will take a lot of learning by doing, and to learn effectively, we need a picture of what good collaboration is so we can begin to measure ourselves against it.
To this end, LFA has developed a distilled, simplified framework for collaborative performance that is customizable, enables self-diagnosis, and creates a roadmap for identifying and making the changes needed to support strong performance. Furthermore, it is a one-page framework, which we think is extremely important because, while complexity is inherent in collaboration and must be respected, it is also important to make collaboration as simple as possible (we’re with Einstein on this one) by distilling collaboration to a few simple, core principles to help make its management, well, manageable.
The only thing that is needed to make this tool work is a dedication to reflective practice – which we recognize is not easy, both in terms of the time and skills needed. But our experience has taught us that even a small investment in reflective practice, with the right tools in hand, can translate to quantum leaps in collaborative performance.
The matrix was developed based on LFA’s experience consulting with collaboratives on both strategy and evaluation, and is grounded in the Collaboration Assessment Tool (CAT). The CAT is a set of indicators that has been established by academic research and validated based on its ability to predict collaborative success by testing the instrument against 77 coalitions, composed of 456 individual organizations (Marek, Brock, & Savla, 2015).
Below we present the core concepts in our tool and some brief guidance for how to use it.
Core Concepts of LFA's Collaborative Performance Development Matrix
There are five critical dimensions of collaborative performance:
Alignment on Vision, Goals, and Strategy
Functional Collaborative Design and Composition
Governance and Personnel that Support Implementation
Active Learning Processes
Resources, Capabilities, and Relationships for Sustainability
These dimensions apply to every collaborative endeavor, but are especially relevant for highly formalized collaboratives involving multiple organizations that are designed to function for a relatively extended period of time (e.g. more than one year). Each dimension may have greater or lesser importance for a given collaborative depending on its purpose, design, and context.
There is a developmental continuum - including four stages of development - for each dimension, allowing for plotting of where a collaborative is along that continuum. Generally speaking, it is expected to take a new collaborative two to three years to progress through the four stages of development for all five dimensions, but depending on design and context, that timing could be shortened or lengthened. Collaboratives can be simultaneously at different stages of development for different dimensions.
The matrix is based on self-assessment, ideally drawing on perspectives from all collaborative members. Where a collaborative gets plotted (based on self-assessment scores) does not reflect a “grade” for its performance, but rather indicates where it is located on the developmental continuum, so it can understand how far it has come as well as where it still needs to go according to each dimension. It is important to normalize the plotting of younger, less developed collaboratives at earlier stages of development and not make people feel that a collaborative is not doing a good job if it is not in the most advanced stage of development.
The Three-Step Process for Using this Matrix
Step 1: Customization
Have an initial conversation with all collaborative members to introduce the matrix and customize it to your situation. Feel free to modify, add, or subtract content from each of the cells in the matrix to make it consistent with your context, while maintaining consistency with the core concepts described above.
Step 2: Initial assessment
You can do an initial assessment either through a full group discussion (aimed at coming to consensus on where the collaborative stand on each dimension) or by securing individual ratings of the dimensions by each collaborative member via a survey, which then get averaged and presented to the full collaborative for discussion. The latter approach, which enables anonymity in responses, is recommended in instances where difficult dynamics and/or low trust exist within the collaborative.
Step 3: Action planning
Now that you have your ratings secured, you get to make meaning of the ratings (Why are we at this point in the developmental continuum? Is it inconsistent with where we should be? What are the barriers for advancing along the continuum?). This lays the groundwork for action planning, which is most often useful to do with a one year time horizon: what should we prioritize as a collaborative in the next year to develop ourselves in each area? It’s important during this exercise to challenge yourselves while at the same time being realistic about your capacity to dedicate time and financial resources to your self-improvement efforts.
Also be sure to think about the sequencing of your actions – are there certain dimensions that make sense to strengthen before others? And lastly – make sure there are some goals and implementation details (such as who will own the activity, what progress will look like, etc.) set to establish accountability, and a process for monitoring progress along the way.
We welcome you to try out this tool with your collaborative, and let us know how it works. We recently used this tool with Partners for Progress (P4P), a collaborative created to coordinate action between nonprofits, businesses, community associations, labor unions, and local academic institutions to make government in San Diego County more transparent and responsive to its most vulnerable residents.
We used the matrix with the board of P4P to assess, and plan for how to improve, its performance across each of the five dimensions, with a focus on establishing the working agreements and relationships needed to work together effectively. It helped the board fulfill their stewardship role by focusing their attention on the capacity of the collaborative – even though many are long-term community organizers who gravitate towards direct action. This collaborative just entered its third year of operation, and while it still has room for growth and development, it is gaining momentum, not losing it – a critical indicator of whether a collaborative is functioning effectively.
What do you think?
What are your thoughts on this tool and this approach to strengthening the performance of collaboratives?