Collaboration Readiness

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Collaboration Readiness

Most of us are working to overcome issues larger than our own capacity (often, exponentially larger). Collaboration is often a must for making real change possible. What is your organization’s collaboration readiness?

Are you a collaborative expert in an amoeba-like organization – ready to adapt and shift at a moment’s notice? If so, you are a rare breed! For the rest of us, an easy step for building capacity as a partner and collaborator is improving organizational readiness.

Truly “ready” leaders and organizations share some common themes: they understand the environment and context surrounding an opportunity, they understand themselves, and they have collaborative experience and principles to rely upon.

In this post, we explore ten questions to assess your collaboration readiness across these themes. Your responses indicate both your current readiness and areas for opportunity to increase capacity. For the numerically inclined, you can rate each response on a scale of 1-5.

Understanding context (external influences and factors)

  1. How well does our organization understand the environmental factors that make alliances and collaborative programs a strategic option for us?

What trends will influence our capacity to make an impact? Be sure to consider changes in the sector (competitors, new entrants, alternative services, stakeholders), changes in the market (needs/demands of clients and funders), changes in the environment (technology, regulation,  social/cultural), or changes in macro-economic forces (capital, costs, infrastructure).

  1. For a specific opportunity, what are we seeking to accomplish? Partnering for partnering sake, even if it means your hummus tray is always full at meetings, is not a good use of time.

In any strategy or opportunity, focusing on the why – what are the benefits? The potential outcomes? – creates the purpose and context for undertaking the (significant) effort related to collaboration. But don’t forget to study the “why nots.”

  1. How well are the potential risks understood? What is at stake if it does not work?

The best way to overcome risks is to identify them upfront (and then find ways to test them). When uncertainty is high (almost always the case when considering new efforts), do not let these risks overwhelm your organization. In the long-run, the risk of not seeking out new ways to make a greater impact often outweigh the short-run risks of miss-steps.

Understanding ourselves

  1. How well does our organization understand its strengths? What can we bring to the table and what are we prepared to contribute?

Making explicit your strengths as well as what is on and off the table before considering collaborations can support clear decision-making.

  1. Do we have a clear policy in place that defines roles, responsibilities for the executive and board leadership in responding to potential collaborative activities?

Don’t make assumptions – different leaders in an organization may have very different experiences and opinions about collaboration. Creating clear policies for how opportunities are introduced, discussed, vetted, and decided can greatly improve an organization’s effectiveness.

  1. How often have we discussed what it means to be a partner and the kind of partner we want to be?

For many collaborative organizations, there may be many different types of roles to provide in a collaboration. How aware is the organization of its norms and beliefs about partnership? These values are often influenced by the past experience(s) with collaboration.

Collaborative experience

  1. How experienced is our leadership with potential structures that can support our desired mission impact? Can we differentiate the advantages and disadvantages of each? (if not, stay tuned for our next post)

The two most common spectrums of collaboration are the delivery of services (joint projects to joint programs to strategic alliances to integration) and internal operations (fiscal sponsorship to shared staffing to shared operations such as finance or human resources to fully consolidated administration). Other factors are community involvement (e.g., outreach and engagement) and sector involvement (e.g., joint advocacy, coalitions, networks).

  1. How experienced is our organization with the pathway of considering options? How familiar are they with key benchmarks?

Like any relationship, collaborations follow a common pathway. Sustainable outcomes take time to unfold. Having experience on your team (staff, executive, board) can help you set expectations and avoid pitfalls.

  1. How able is your organization to participate in and support collaborative discussions?

Urgency is an important driver, but emergency creates conditions that limit options and reduce creativity.

The time (and money) commitment is also important to be aware of. Progressive funders are increasingly funding the pursuit of collaboration, not just actual collaborations. Seek out those funders or start conversations with others, support may be easier to find than you think.

Lastly, to move forward, together, you have to move forward, together.

  1. How well have you engaged key stakeholders (major donors, regulators) about your interests, considerations, and/or status in collaborative discussions?

Making sure that your partners understand and support your efforts (before you make a final decision) is an important way to build closer engagement.

Of course, collaborative readiness does not translate directly into collaborative effectiveness. These questions cover the general, high level readiness concerns. What are the unique nuances to your work, or your opportunity, that you should consider? What are the capacity areas that will expand with a collaboration? Which areas will become more stressed? What is the capacity and readiness of your partner(s)?

There are many resources available to guide your pursuit of collaboration. Living Cities has a wonderful set of tools and activities for cross-sector partnerships. Next week, we will explore the spectrum of collaborations available. What types of collaborations do you engage in? Share with us at and we can highlight you in next week’s post!



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