Three Years of Lessons on Collaboration

about_unsectored_graphic_REVISEDIt’s been almost three years since I brought together a group of friends interested in writing about creating change using collaborative methods. That group of friends became the first group of bloggers for UnSectored, which, three years later, has grown into much more than I could have expected. UnSectored now has a volunteer team of six and has published over 250 posts exploring social change through sectoral and organizational collaboration. We’ve hosted dozens of events to help people connect with others interested in working between and beyond sectors to create large-scale change.

After three years of involvement, I’ve decided to step down from my day-to-day responsibilities managing UnSectored. Starting next week, I will be working at Living Cities as a part of its Integration Initiative. Kathy Chamberlain, UnSectored’s Managing Director, will take over my day-to-day responsibilities, and I can’t wait to see where she takes the organization.

At this moment of reflection, I wanted to take some time to share what I see as the key lessons I’ve learned over the past three years working on UnSectored. Not only does UnSectored encourage discussion about collaboration, it is a collaborative initiative itself. I’ve divided up my lessons learned into two sections: Lessons about collaboration, and lessons about running a collaborative organization. I hope you enjoy, and feel free to add your own thoughts in the comments.

Lessons about collaboration:

Collaboration is a process, not an outcome

This seems obvious, but has some important implications. The act of collaborating can be used in almost any scenario, whether to provide social services or put on a multi-stakeholder event. Successful collaborations, regardless of the focus area, have similar characteristics that can be applied to diverse situations. I won’t go into the criteria that form a successful collaboration here, but I encourage you to check out this post from my Living Cities colleague, Tynesia Boyea-Robinson, on how to apply collective impact to any policy problem.

Ego over everything

At almost every in-person UnSectored discussion we had, the problem of ego came up. Either organizational arrogance or individual arrogance will be a problem for any collaborative initiative. Ego can cause problems even when you’ve established complete buy-in from all parities. All organizations have individual motives for participating in a collaboration, and sometimes their actions may be focused on serving their own needs rather than the greater good of the partnership. Organizations within a collaboration must navigate the constant tension between acting on self-serving motivations and sacrificing for the collaborative.

Trust is foundational

The antidote to ego is trust. A successful collaboration will require that all parties involved trust each other to do what is right by all members. Without this trust, collaborations cannot be successful. Trust is particularly important for the long-term initiatives focused on solving system-level problems, as these require constant re-negotiation of terms and goals as the reality of the real world changes over time. Trust between partners is also the only way to navigate the tension between selfishness and selflessness. (For more on trust, check out UnSectored blogger and all around good guy Mark Hecker’s latest post on the topic.) 

Have patience

This also seems obvious, but when you’re in the third meeting in as many weeks re-explaining the goals for your collaboration, you’ll need a little patience. Everyone has a different framework for thinking about problems, and it takes time to ensure that all organizations are aligned on how to think about the tasks at hand. Gaining clarity about the problem, the goals and the activities at the beginning of a collaboration will help to minimize those seemingly unnecessary conversations down the line.

There’s hype, but there’s also integrity

To me, the opposite of hype is integrity. The last three years have certainly produced a lot of hype around collaboration, partnership building and collective impact. The social sector latches on to “it” ideas, only to discard them a few years later once something new comes along. Many people in our UnSectored conversations expressed the concern that collaboration was just another fad that would disappear into the fog of old ideas in a few years.

While there is quite a bit of hype around the idea, there is a lot of integrity behind existing collaborations and their associated lessons learned. Collaboration may not be in vogue for much longer, but the power of collaboration to solve social problems will not diminish. The integrity of collaboration can be seen in two recent case studies on collaborative initiatives, one from my previous employer, VPP, and one from my new employer, Living Cities.

Lessons about running an organization:

There is no name for this

The largest struggle I faced in growing UnSectored was finding an appropriate organizational structure that fit our way of operating. For most of UnSectored’s existence, we were an unincorporated organization, run by a group of people willing to volunteer our time. As we grew, I decided we needed to establish a structure that allowed us to bring in some revenue and sustain our operations over time. All organizational structures that would allow us to take in a small amount of funds (less than $500 a year) would also double our operating costs in the form of legal fees. Ultimately, I decided the cheapest option was to incorporate as an LLC, but we have continued to have issues maintaining this structure.

Many other organizations I’ve met along the way operate similarly. These organizations are fueled by individuals willing to donate a few hours of their time outside of work each week, as well as low-cost tools provided by the internet and social media. I do not know what to call UnSectored and similar organizations other than a “collaborative organization,” which requires very little money to run sustainably. UnSectored relies on a combination of donations and revenue from our events, and no one involved with UnSectored expects to make significant profit off of the organization—instead, they want to better understand the social sector and contribute to a cutting-edge conversation. The current organizational structures exist for entities that rely on profit or donations, and nothing in between. We need an organizational structure that is flexible and adaptable to the needs of organizations like UnSectored.

Successful organizations fill needs, not what founders want

I started UnSectored as a group blog, and was not expecting anything more than producing a few posts each month. However, the idea of “working for change between and beyond sectors” (UnSectored’s original tag line) resonated with people and they wanted more. We started to develop event series, and eventually integrated our blog posts with our events. We began to partner with other organizations in the DC area that were interested in joining our conversations.

I have seen many organizations similar in scope to UnSectored fail because the leader only wanted to pursue his or her ideas, not what their community of support was asking for. I think UnSectored has been successful because I allowed the community to direct our action. When I tried to control the organizational direction too much and steered it in a direction I thought was best based on my personal interests, we always failed.

If you are trying to start or run your own organization, particularly an organization with a social focus, remember that the organization isn’t about you—it’s about the community you are trying to serve or the problem you are trying to solve. If you try to force an organization in a direction it isn’t naturally headed, you will probably end up in a worse place than where you started.

Surround yourself with good people and support what they want

A common maxim in business leadership is some variation on “surround yourself with good people and get out of their way.” (Which I was surprised to find is originally attributable to Ronald Reagan.) I would amend this maxim to say: “Surround yourself with good people and support what they want.”

I take the role of “servant leader” very seriously. When I am put into a leadership position, I don’t think of myself as in a driving position, but rather in a supporting position. My leadership successes have been a result of me seeking the input of others and supporting them to accomplish their goals. My tendency to do this is another reason why UnSectored was more of a “collaborative organization” than anything else. I ensured that everyone on my team gave input into our activities and were able to drive their own ideas when it made sense within the context of the organization’s growth. My role in UnSectored became more of a coordinator than a leader, which contributed to our success as a volunteer-run organization.

If you are a leader in an organization, I would strongly recommend you take a “servant leadership” approach to your work. Serving as a coordinator of activity rather than a director will help to ensure you do not miss out on what your community needs from you. For more guidance on the philosophy of servant leadership, look no further than the wonderful sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., “The Drum Major Instinct.”


2 thoughts on “Three Years of Lessons on Collaboration

  1. Jeff,

    Congratulations on three great years at Unsectored. Servant leaders are by necessity and nature quite humble, as you yourself are in this post. Your vision, leadership, ability to let go, deep listening skills, and most important – your integrity made Unsectored the community it is today. I’m sure the community will thrive and Living Cities is lucky to have your talents!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s