Our last post focused on being ready for collaboration. But what does it mean to collaborate, really? For insights, we turned to a google search:

work jointly on an activity, especially to produce or create something.
“he collaborated with a distinguished painter on the designs”
“they collaborated on the project”
cooperate traitorously with an enemy.
“the indigenous elite who collaborated with the colonizers”
“they collaborated with the enemy”

These two definitions illustrate the conflict often embedded in collaboration – how do we work jointly to benefit the whole (e.g., increase impact, lower costs) while maintaining our individual sense of self and identity?

Complicating matters, “working jointly” covers a wide range of activities. Does coordinating fundraising events count? What about attending meetings together? Are those under the same umbrella as running joint programs, sharing back offices, or merging organizations?

In this post, we will try to bring clarity to the confusion. First, we will introduce areas of potential collaboration and highlight the most common structures for making collaborations work.

So when are you collaborating? We would argue that each of the examples above are forms of collaborating together to create greater value. A good rule of thumb we have learned is to ask has each party put some degree of risk, resources, or reputation at stake?  If so, then you are collaborators (congratulations!).

To add more clarity, focus on the purpose for your collaboration. It’s helpful to begin with the benefits you are seeking. What could most increase the scale of your impact? What barriers are you facing? Often times, your current and potential collaborators face similar challenges or have unique offerings that could mitigate your barriers. The three most common areas for partnering are operations (internal-facing collaborations), programming (client-facing collaborations), and community engagement (audience-facing collaborations).

Today, we will not be outlining processes for considering partnerships, but do want to pass on some sage advice from one of our collaborators – Jane Arsenault of Fio Partners – that has really helped us to focus our collaborative efforts and those of our clients.  Always be careful to match the structure (type of collaboration) to the work, not vice versa. When building a house, you determine what rooms you need before you started building. Otherwise, you may end up with a five kitchen, no bed, no bath design. The same can be true of partnerships.

So here you are: you have a vision, you know your strengths, you’ve got a purpose in mind, you are ready to collaborate.  What kind of structures can help us increase our impact? La Piana Consulting has developed a useful illustration, the Collaborative Map to highlight some of the options:


The map illustrates the three primary “structures” based on the legal agreements used to connect the partners. Informal partnerships (the outside, “collaboration” ring) require no signed documents – commitments are often loose and related to specific initiatives. Formalized partnerships (the middle, “alliance” ring) often have some sort of Memorandum of Understanding to set the terms and roles for partners.  These are common with larger commitments of risks, resources, or reputation. Lastly, the transformational partnerships (the inside, “strategic restructuring” ring) involve a new legal structure to manage the change in responsibilities and new identity of the partners.

Often times, public attention is given most to transformational partnerships. However, our experiences have shown that there is a vast, untapped set of opportunities for tighter informal partnerships that connect stakeholders to clients. As a collaborative leader, what kinds of partnerships are available to help you scale your impact?  Who could you be working, beyond just the usual suspects?


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