5 Factors that Make Collaborations Work

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Social sector leaders graciously shared their experiences with working successfully with others to advance their shared missions at "Collaborations That Work", a meet-up and happy-hour devoted to partnerships at Foundation Center West on May 19.

We were delighted to have a full house and extremely active Q&A sessions for each speaker or pair of speakers. Afterward, guests and speakers enjoyed a happy hour full of mingling and networking. 

Our speakers included:

Our speakers gave us insights into their partnerships and shared victories, challenges, and lessons learned. Here are five takeaways about collaborations that work:

1. Start small. 

It’s easy to get ambitious when you’re sharing a workload with a partner. But collaborations can get unruly if partners don’t pare down their work initially. Consider rolling out your master plan in stages.

When Habitat for Humanity and PG&E began their partnership building solar-powered, below-market-rate housing for low-income Bay Area families, they started small. They piloted a small development of affordable housing. When their beneficiaries, the homeowners, were settled and all parties were pleased with the initial outcomes, they expanded their reach, and even teamed up with other organizations, such as nonprofit Grid Alternatives, to help with the project. Their current work benefits from that first round of building: it set up a stable foundation, and allowed them to move forward and expand, confident in their partnership.

2. Talk… a lot!

A business partnership is first and foremost a relationship. And relationships benefit from a great deal of clear communication. Collaborators should be as transparent with each other as possible. Sharing ideas, reservations, and successes makes for a healthy, long-lasting partnership. Additionally, reaching out and talking with the communities you serve is essential.

The expansion and resiliency of the Bay Area arts community is a reflection of whether or not Moy Eng and her staff at CAST are achieving their mission. Thus, they are constantly in conversation with their community to keep up with the ways San Francisco’s swiftly shifting real estate market affects their work and livelihood.

Lex Leifheit is also tasked with communicating with her beneficiaries: In her new role in San Francisco’s city government, she works to help nonprofits stay afloat, and keep their doors open. She works with them to develop sustainable business plans, development strategies, and partnerships. Thus, she is always in conversation with organizations, assessing their needs and working toward strengthening the sector.

3. Set boundaries.

It can be really challenging to set and maintain boundaries, but they are absolutely key to the success of a collaboration. Kimberly Wicoff (San Francisco Education Fund) and Alex Tourk (sf.citi) work to support San Francisco public schools, through the Circle the Schools initiative. Wicoff communicates with school administrators, which is her specialty. Tourk works with the tech and business community to explore volunteer and funding opportunities.

The pair contends that their collaboration functions best when they are both clear in their roles, and they do not overlap or double-up on their work. If their roles start to blur together, their work comes to a standstill. Their partnership thrives because they are very clear on who does what, and how their separate work, when combined, brings about real change in our local schools.

4. Share.

Everyone has resources to offer. When you’re working in collaboration with another organization, share your assets.

DataKind’s Fuller explains how their data scientists synthesize data that nonprofits have aggregated to tackle significant social issues. He and his team organize “data dives”, which, according to DataKind, are “high-energy, marathon-style events where mission-driven organizations work alongside teams of volunteer data scientists, developers, and designers to use data to gain insight into their programs, the communities they serve, and more. All in 48 hours or less.” During a dive, the team takes a nonprofit’s data, cleans it up, synthesizes it, and devises a plan to help that organization work more efficiently and effectively.

At a recent data dive, DataKind partnered with Community Technology Alliance (CTA). CTA collects data about homelessness in the U.S. They approached DataKind with five years’ worth of this data from Monterey County and asked if they would synthesize the raw metrics. DataKind spent the weekend coming up with insights from the data that they could present to CTA. Some insights included an evaluation of CTA’s drug counseling, which is very strong, and a look at its veteran services. CTA took these insights to their board and revised their funding plan, based on DataKind’s findings. In these data dives, the nonprofit isn’t the only one that benefits — DataKind’s work improves with each partnership.

5. Commit.

Inevitably, challenges will arise in every partnership. Katherine Zavala (IDEX) spoke from experience when she advised us to stay steadfast in our collaborations, through thick and thin (if they work, of course). Partnerships are worth the occasional struggle—and Zavala should know.

IDEX carries out its work solely through partnerships with grassroots organizations. For IDEX, collaborations involve strengthening relationships with organizations to build trust. When opportunities emerge to collaborate, they are ready to work with partners. Zavala said that IDEX doesn't let go of partnerships because the struggle towards social justice has its highs and lows. Their commitment is to that journey with their partners. 

Debbie Wilber (Hamilton Family Center) and Alanya Green (Taproot) also spoke to the importance of commitment. During their partnership, the two organizations have worked on a number of different projects and tackled various challenges, through the pro bono services Taproot offers. The Hamilton Family Center discovered that when working with Taproot, it’s important to commit to the pro-bono partnership. Just because their services are free, does not mean they aren’t of value. In fact, Taproot’s services have benefitted Hamilton Family Center a great deal, and they value these services and treat them as if they were working with paid consultants. As a result, they’ve committed to what has ultimately turned out to be a very successful, fruitful partnership.

The moral of the story here? If your partnership benefits your work, stick with it through all the ups and downs: it’s worth it!

If you were able to join us at the meet up, please share some of your takeaways in the comments section below, or tweet us at @FCSanFrancisco.