The Council on Foundations’ commitment to encouraging collaboration is commendable, particularly considering the great accomplishments that alliance building has produced. Collaborative philanthropy has had a far-reaching impact on public opinion, legislation, civil rights, education, the environment, and much more. Thanks to the power of alliances, several key Millennial Development Goals are on target for 2015. For example, from 1990 to today, 2 billion more people have access to safe drinking water.
Despite encouraging historic outcomes, collaborative efforts can be fraught with wicked problems, which are challenges that do not readily lend themselves to tried-and-true solutions. I believe that potentialities can be actualized and problems considerably reduced by carefully implementing best practices. Although there is a growing body of available literature to guide us, continued rigorous research would be of inestimable value.
Collaborative efforts fail to produce desired outcomes for understandable reasons. For example, parties may differ significantly in respect to culture, norms, or vision. Organizations may fail to use effective models and processes for running meetings and establishing protocols. Failing to implement a facilitation strategy, or person, for building trust, effective communication, and clearly defined agreements can lead to lingering tension and unproductive outcomes.
Choosing to engage in simple and gradual collaboration can lessen expectations, commitments, and wicked problems, while resulting in rewarding outcomes. Consider the great value of sharing information or contributing to existing infrastructures. Strategic planning is often thought of as an intra-organizational process—and it should be. I believe it would be highly beneficial if more foundations paid closer attention to their philanthropic “ecosystem” when developing strategies. Having a basic understanding about what other players in our respective spaces are planning could impact strategies and lead to reduced replication and efficient allocations of talent, while maintaining a simple autonomous structure likely to save time and be less problematic.
History is replete with examples demonstrating the benefits of collaboration. However, complex situations provide a particularly conducive breeding ground for wicked problems. Beginning by engaging in simpler, gradual collaborative initiatives requires less time and commitments, while also allowing parties more flexibility after determining which relationships should continue to be developed. Regardless, careful planning, implementing effective models, and applying skillful facilitation provide a disciplined, collaborative framework conducive to lessening obstacles and maximizing impact.
Peter Brach is the international development advisor for the Brach Family Charitable Foundation.