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.”


It’s not our fault we don’t work in government

CapitolThe New York Times ran an interesting article today about how only a few young people in Obama’s inner circle have made the jump to run for public office. An interesting trend on its own, but the Times took this evidence a little too far and implied that millennials in general are not interested in public service. This conclusion was summed up by a former Obama pollster, Sergio Bendixen:

“After getting swept up by the Obama movement of 2008, [Bendixen] said, ‘They went on to the next website and then the next click on their computer. I just don’t see the generation as all that ideological or invested in causes for the long run.'”

I don’t know anything about Bendixen and his work, but assuming he wasn’t misquoted on this, I take extreme issue with this statement and the resulting implication that millennials don’t care about causes larger than themselves. His overall conclusion is problematic for two reasons:

One, it just isn’t true. Anyone with a cursory understanding of the social sector will know that millennials are a huge player in defining what social action looks like. While there may not be solid research on showing that millennials are more devoted to causes than previous generations, we certainly aren’t less committed. I could cite tons of research displaying this, but I won’t because if you are reading this, you probably already agree with me and I don’t want to waste your time. (But if you do want to see some studies, comment.) Bendixen’s assertion seems to rely only on anecdotal evidence and a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be socially committed these days. Which brings me to:

Two, Bendixen and the Times fell for what I’m going to call the “doing good sector” fallacy, which assumes you can only improve society through the nonprofit or government sector. In reality, all sectors have their role to play in the causes we care about. And more importantly, no one sector is unified. So even though young people may not be running for office in large numbers (and with Congressional approval ratings at 13%, who can blame them?), there are still many ways to engage with government: volunteering, working for an agency, or serving in a public liaison role in another organization. Even if they don’t want to work in government, the nonprofit and private sector offer many ways for socially conscious millennials to have a career with impact.

Unfortunately, it’s true that millennials aren’t going to work for government. But the problem isn’t that millennials are disengaged, it’s that government does not seem that attractive to us. Bickering and gridlock from Capitol Hill does not inspire much confidence in the institution. I’m all for more millennials getting into government service, but I don’t think that will happen until it proves itself as an effective entity to the broader population. (There are many examples of government effectiveness, don’t get me wrong, it just it isn’t perceived that way.)

It’s very easy to blame our perceived laziness and obsession with social media for the limited millennial interest in government service, but it’s much harder to understand why a very socially conscious generation may not be interested in government. Government no longer has a monopoly on social change, and if it doesn’t want to get left behind, it needs to think about how to incorporate millennials into its workforce.

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

The Problem with Philanthropy

leapI was lucky enough to attend the After the Leap conference last month. The two-day event was a culmination of more than two years of work on encouraging nonprofit performance management by a small coalition of people, led by Mario Morino. The movement began with the release of Leap of Reason, a book primarily authored by Morino, which made the compelling argument to nonprofits and funders alike to pay more attention to achieving tangible results. (Disclosure: I worked with Morino to help release the book and build momentum around its core messages.)

The event was attended by over 400 people from around the world—an impressive feat when you consider its eye-glazing-over topic of public sector performance management and evaluation. But I thought the most impressive part of the conference was the general feeling in the audience, and reflected in some of the speakers’ remarks, that funders are mostly to blame for a lack of effectiveness and performance management in the social sector. It is rare you find a group of people brave enough to blame a major source of their livelihoods for any type of problem. Many people lambasted funders for not supporting the infrastructure necessary to invest in the people and technology that create performance management systems.

Nancy Roob, President of the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, said in her keynote address that the reason funders don’t support performance management is that they are focused on “piecemeal” activities and not on results. Her five suggestions to change this, summarized in Twitter form, were:


These suggestions by Roob will help push funders in the right direction on performance management, but ultimately fall short of solving the main problem with philanthropy: Ego. Until we remove ego from philanthropy, no other sector-wide reforms can happen. Until philanthropists and foundations understand that their own goals and agendas are secondary to the results of the sector as a whole, those results will continue to be piecemeal.

Here’s why: Philanthropy has no incentive to change the way it is working. Right now, there’s no punishment for not achieving results (save public disapproval) for any type of philanthropy. This means that foundations and philanthropists can go on creating their own initiatives and funding their own pet projects without recourse, even if those end up being complete failures.

The only way philanthropy is going to change is if their stakeholders stand up to them. Look at Roob’s list of five suggestions again—they are all self-imposed changes. There are no structural changes, such as tying tax-deductible status to demonstrated social impact, or increasing required endowment payout for foundations. If the government won’t change the rules around philanthropy, the only other constituency that can push philanthropy in this non-piecemeal direction is philanthropy’s beneficiaries—the nonprofits.

And it is a rare nonprofit that can stand up to its funders and turndown money, or negotiate on the terms. One nonprofit, Communities in Schools, was able to do it, according to another conference keynote given by its president, Dan Cardinali. But unfortunately, a lot of the advice given at the conference to nonprofits about securing funding based on results was to work only with those funders who understood the long-term time horizons that performance management implementation takes, and ignore the others. For most nonprofits, they do not have that privilege, and are forced to sacrifice on operations, or mission, or both, to bend to the wishes of funders.

Without a significant cultural shift in the social sector away from ego, it is unlikely we will achieve widespread nonprofit performance management or increased results. We need to move to a more collaborative environment, with results as the guidepost, not personal goals and ideas. What we need to do is “keep the arrogance out of social change,” as UnSectored blogger Laura Tomasko put it, and work together better.

So how do we create this culture change? The same way all cultural shifts have happened—from the anti-slavery movement to women’s rights to same-sex marriage—by speaking truth to power. This is hard to do, especially when the powerful are funding your paycheck. But a lot is happening within the social sector to stand up to those funders too focused on ego to put results first—evidenced by the large attendance at the After the Leap conference, which included many funders in addition to Roob. Changing culture will require coordination on both sides of the issue—funders and nonprofits—just as all social movements require input from actors with different motivations.

After the Leap was a great start to a small part of this culture change, and many attendees by end were asking when the next one would be. It’s gatherings like these that will continue to chip away at the institutional ego of philanthropy and encourage collaboration among all actors in the social sector.

Photo credit: danger0usdays

What’s your question?


What’s your question?

I spoke with Lucy Bernholz recently, and she said something that dramatically shifted the way I think about my professional life. Lucy is someone I greatly admire and, in my opinion, is one of the leading thinkers and doers of the social sector. During our conversation, she told me she never sat down and charted a path for her growth. She never came up with quarterly goals or yearly plans. Instead, she has always followed the path of what she called her “one question.”

She said all of her career has been built around the answer to this one question that has been nagging her in the back of her head for years. She said she didn’t know how to articulate it at first, but over time she has been able to understand it more clearly.

To her, that question is “What’s private, what’s public and who decides?” If you know her work, that question makes perfect sense. If you don’t, you might not understand what she means, but that doesn’t matter, because she understands it. And she has been working to find the answer, or at least get closer and closer to the answer.

In a world of five-year plans, goal setting and key performance indicators, it is refreshing to meet someone driven by pure curiosity. Sometimes, we can get too focused on a particular goal or a particular action that we forget why we are doing it in the first place. Entrepreneurs especially can become trapped by the tunnel vision of execution and lose sight of the broader problems they are trying to solve.

I’ve never been fond of goal setting. I do it, because can be useful for certain things. But when setting off on an ambiguous path without clear metrics, I’ve found it less useful to set time-sensitive goals for myself. Following a question—such as, “How do I make this organization sustainable?” or “How do I achieve more work/life balance?”—can be more helpful. Using a question as a guidepost centers you back to what you ultimately want to achieve.

Lucy took this one step further and used a question to guide herself through her professional life. This question became her guidepost as she explored the world around her. She never turned down the opportunity to have a conversation, whether that was in an amphitheater full of people or as a part of a small dinner group or through a blog post. Not only has her question helped her create a successful career for herself, but by following it every direction she could, she’s explored areas she didn’t think she would and contributed to the betterment of society in new ways. Rigid career goals wouldn’t have allowed for that.

I’m still figuring out how to articulate my question—I think it’s something along the lines of “Why don’t we work together to solve problems?”—but after re-thinking how to approach my career I feel much freer to pursue what excites me, and I’m not so driven by what I think should be constructing for myself: yearly goals to speak at five different public events, writing for ten different blogs. Instead, I’m pursuing my question and finding ways to talk with people about it. Success will come to me the closer I get to finding my answer.

I think we’d all be happier if we could stop focusing on a strict career path we (or others) lay our for us, and instead find one question we are passionate about a pursue it to the extent we can—maybe that’s through work, or maybe that’s in our spare time.

So, what’s your question?

Photo credit: omcoc