Conversations that Seed Collaboration in a Community

In most communities, there are dozens of non-profit and other organizations, each working on a discrete set of goals, yet operating in the same place and systems as others. “We need to collaborate to be more effective and have a bigger impact” is the frequent refrain. The question is how and where do we start? We had the opportunity to offer a training in collaborating for collective impact at the South Coast Non-Profit Leadership Conference in New Bedford, MA. Funders in the region jointly organized and sponsored this conference, which brought together about 150 non-profits from areas such as education, arts, community development, environment, and food. I’ll share how we designed the event and some of the outcomes, as this can be a model that can be replicated in any community to begin the conversations about collaborating across organizations and sectors.

First, I want to share my “design intent” in how I approached this. In Peter Block’s book Community: The Structure of Belonging, he writes “We need to weave the social fabric to shift from isolation into connectedness and caring for the whole. Social fabric is built one room at a time, starting with this one.” He emphasizes that every gathering can be an example of the future we want to create. Instead of viewing this situation as an opportunity to give a speech at a conference to educate people on the concept of collective impact, I focused on how I could design this conference session to model the concepts and create the fertile soil for greater collaboration to emerge.

Set the Stage and Share Stories

The morning began with me giving about a half-hour overview talk and then we had a World Café dialogue, where small groups talked about a series of three questions. Here are a few of the prep steps we took so that the room set up itself created new connections and helped people learn more about the larger community:

  • Room was set up in round tables of 8 – this enables participants to talk more easily than rows and lends itself to small group conversations.
  • When people registered, we asked them to answer a question: What is the primary issue or constituency you are focused on? and offered a list, such as: Education, Health, Social Services, etc. In wedding planner fashion, the conference organizer used this data to create seating assignments with table numbers so each table had a mix of people from across issues and sectors.

A key theme of my talk was the need to get a 10,000 foot view of the system. I asked the funders to get me a list of current alliances/collaborations in the area and which organizations were members of each. We generated a visualization of these links and connections (using social network analysis software) and put copies of these maps on each table, enabling people to see what collaborations already existed and where their organization fit in. CollaborationMapNB

My overview talk provided everyone with a common frame, shared language, and illustrative stories for what it means to collaborate in this way. Here were key themes:

  • We need to move from working in isolated ways, with short-term focus toward aligning our work and collaborating at a greater scale. This includes creating structures that support ongoing collaboration over longer-time frames, regardless of transitions of mayors, CEOs, Executive Directors, etc.
  • This takes a shift in how we orient from working in organizations and top-down management structures to working in collaborative networks with dispersed leadership. The focus is on creating conditions for self-organizing and emergence of new possibilities.
  • Working across organizations and for systems change is different than the way we work in organizations. Several stories were shared of key dimensions of working in networked ways:
  • Key skills in working in this way are leading with questions and practicing the Art of Hosting to convene gatherings and bring people together in skillful ways that embody these principles.

Let the People Talk

The World Café dialogue focused on three questions, and people discussed these in groups of four, mixing up the tables after each round to cross-pollinate ideas:

  • What is the most inspiring example of collaboration for collective impact that you have participated in or learned about? What enabled that? (Round 1)
  • What is a particular issue or challenge in our community that lends itself to this type of collective impact approach? (Round 2)
  • Looking forward, what is needed for you, and we as a community, to work in this collaborative way? (Round 3)

The World Café process generates many benefits that are foundations for ongoing collaborations:

  • The bedrock foundation of any collaborative effort is connectivity and trust…meeting and having the space to talk with people about questions that matter.
  • People move beyond their fragmented view as they talk to each other in small groups and learn more about other parts of their community/system.
  • The cross-pollinating and mingling of many people and streams of conversation illustrates how new ideas can emerge from diversity.
  • The open questions help us discover and distill the collective intelligence and wisdom that exists in the group – it offers an experience of the parts adding up to a greater whole.

After the small group conversations, we did a “harvest” of key themes in the large group. I asked people: What themes and connections did you hear? What ideas inspired you? Here are a few of the key themes that emerged and points that garnered the most applause in the room:

  • We’re all working toward same end goal. We need dialogue about where we can find how our efforts support each others’.
  • All non-profits missions are targeting a social ill or gap in our local community. There is a broader system and structural change that is needed. People continue to make low wages, get discriminated against, etc. so we need to come together cross-sector and look at big system change so ultimately all of our missions can be accomplished. (lots of applause)
  • We need an enzyme that is a catalyst for passion and power. Find common interest and challenge assumptions that we’re limited by resources and time.
  • In social service work, no one presents with one problem, e.g, an academic issue for a student might be also be a drug issue or a homelessness issue. No one agency can do it all – the only way to serve this client is to play nicely together.

The interest and enthusiasm for collaboration and getting to next steps was palpable.

Offer Space to Connect in New Ways

This brought us to the lunch break. Soon after, several of the hosts came up to me with worried looks. One of the main speakers for the afternoon could not make it due to a family medical emergency. We talked it through and I offered to organize conversations about next steps. Using Open Space Technology, I offered a list of issues that had emerged from the morning, (e.g., education, transportation) and surveyed people for additional topics. Each topic got assigned to a table number. People could “vote with their feet” and join whichever conversation they wanted. The question was: What is the next minimal elegant step we could take to increase our collective impact for this issue?

As if to perfectly illustrate the point that when you create spaces for people in community to connect in new ways, new possibilities emerge, here is a story of an “elegant next step” that came out of one of those table conversations. This was shared by Corinn Williams, Executive Director of the CEDC Community Economic Development Center of SE MA:

“We were at the Transportation table discussing some common challenges we face in Southeastern Mass with very limited public transportation. Andrew from the Community Boating program finds that transportation costs for the after-school and summer program take up a considerable part of his programming budget. We brainstormed about ways youth providers could better collaborate to share costs around transportation. Traditionally, the Summer Fund from United Way has a RFP process where everyone competes for funding and creates their own budget. We were able to pull in Victoria, the coordinator of the Summer Fund, to figure out how to better coordinate transportation across programs. We talked about a schedule of how providers could figure out how to integrate additional drop-offs for two or more programs. There is already a model for some of this in New Bedford that has been successfully implemented as part of the Invest in Kids After School Program. A great discussion with some tangible outcomes!”

Update: We continued to work in this community and heard a year later that several of the groups that began conversations that in this Open Space were still meeting.

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