The Sheila McKechnie Foundation’s Social Change Project investigated how social change happens. The research identified “the 12 habits of successful change-makers”, behaviours found in both individuals and organisations. Every month in 2019, SMK CEO and ACEVO trustee Sue Tibballs will reflect on what these habits mean for civil society leaders and invite you to do the same.
Habit #9: Do we talk about collaboration more than we actually do it? And is that because our real challenge is trusting each other?
We know that civil society is where much significant change originates, and that significant change happens when players work together in savvy ways. One single organisation is not going to shift the dial on a systemic and ambitious agenda on their own.
It seems to me that collaboration is all about trust in others, and about ceding some control.
Through the Social Change Project, we were interested to find a number of powerful ‘white-labelled’ collaborations where partners unite behind one campaign message, such as Time to Change or Malaria Must Die. Partners put mission and potential impact ahead of branding or ego. Campaigns like these are more likely to be adopted widely precisely because no one is ‘owning’ the message, so everyone can see their place in the movement.
If we look to the movements of our age which are shifting the dial—Extinction Rebellion and Fridays for the Future—collaboration goes hand in hand with the devolution of power. No one in a central HQ is holding the pen all of the time. A bit like a flock of birds who take turns flying in the lead so that no one collapses from exhaustion. There’s something we—as leaders of traditionally structured organisations—can learn from this: working together means ceding some control, for the health of our overall ambition.
Another common form of collaboration we found is informal and hidden. Large ‘insider’ organisations will work with smaller, less constrained ‘outsider’ organisations to raise the volume on an issue by being punchy and outspoken. This opens the door for the ‘insider’ organisations to have the conversations that they all need to happen. Each is working to its strengths around a common cause. And collaboration for a unified voice is crucial at times when the sector comes under assault.
But the reality of collaboration isn’t easy. Research from the Collaborate Foundation shows that we have some way to go to match the rhetoric with reality when it comes to meaningful partnership. As social sector leaders we tend to talk about it a lot – but why don’t we do it more?
There are so many questions that crop up when we start to think about collaborating. Where does a strong relationship with another organisation become an actual collaboration? Will the timing ever be perfect? Do our systems (GDPR) and cultures (branding, fundraising) support this way of working? Surely, in the short-term at least, we are going to see less money in the bank if we collaborate more? Are our funders going to be supportive? As a CEO I might signal clearly that I want collaboration to happen, but am I making sure there is enough space for it in my organisation? What about the messages we might disagree on with other organisations? These are all really important questions to air. But don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. No two organisations are going to align completely (arguably, if you find your doppelganger charity you should consider merging). Have trust in your colleagues and in others that together we’re capable of shifting the dial further, and with greater strength.
Previous blog in the series: Habit #8, radical listening & asset-based approaches