The business, government, and non-profit sectors — and indeed various entities within the sectors — have their own languages, cultures, and work practices. Diverse perspectives and expertise are key to creating value in collaboration and jointly achieving results on seemingly intractable problems, but this diversity can prove challenging when partners are pursuing shared goals in a consensus-oriented environment. Our Toolkit — consisting of 17 actions that practitioners can take together to help forge successful collaboration — is designed to assist practitioners in navigating those differences.
Partners encounter some of their first collective decision making in the collaboration’s journey when they work to Share a Vision of Success, one of the first tools in our Toolkit. Reaching agreement on a set of goals and ideal outcomes that clarify the mission and priorities of the collaboration is crucial, as it links stakeholders together and creates a mutual understanding of the benefits of success, setting the tone for the future of the collaboration.
A shared vision of success can be challenging to reach as collaboration partners are likely to come to the collaboration with their own organization- and sector-specific priorities and mandates. The most effective collaborations acknowledge and welcome these differences: While they can complicate the process of agreeing on a shared vision, they go hand-in-hand with the complementary resources and capabilities that cross-sector partners bring to the partnership. For example, government’s prioritization of the rule of law and providing public services accompanies its unique power of policy, significant reach, and ability to impact public opinion; the market approach of the business sector results in its considerable financial resources and expertise in product and service delivery; the social-benefit-orientation of non-profits contributes to its deep community- and issue-level knowledge, and perceptions of legitimacy.
When partners come together to build this vision of success, we recommend that they reflect on these questions:
- What will we include in our vision of success (e.g. a description of the current situation, the activity or program we will launch, our target beneficiaries, our expected intermediate and final outcomes, etc.)?
- What will we do when partners have differing visions of success? What will we do when partners agree on a vision but disagree on the means to achieve that vision?
- How will we manage tensions between partners’ individual organizational goals and the goals of the collaboration?
- How will we document our shared vision of success?
- Are we open to shifting our vision of success as the collaboration progresses? If so, what will be our process for revisiting it?
How should partners go about building this shared vision? First, they can consult the “Mapping the Collaborative Journey” discussion in Evaluating Collaboratives: Reaching the Potential, a comprehensive resource for evaluating multi-stakeholder processes from the University of Wisconsin Cooperative Extension. This resource walks collaboration partners through the process of creating a logic model, or “logically linked sequence of change,” that articulates a relationship between the collaboration’s work and the results and impact it hopes to achieve (found on pages 22-30). The authors of this tool point out that conversations to design a logic model often unearth “differences in perceptions and ideas about expected outcomes, procedures, and philosophies,” providing a platform to welcome and consider partners’ differing priorities and work toward consensus.
Partners can also consult “The Objective Assessment” in the Partnership Development Toolkit, a guide from the European Commission for facilitators of EQUAL Development Partnerships (but easily adaptable to partners in a wide variety of issue areas). This resource guides partners through an exercise to jointly identify desired outcomes related to a problem they wish to address (found in Section 2.2: Problem and Objective Assessment on pages 17-22). The assessment also guides partners through establishing a cause-to-effect hierarchy and a dot-voting process for prioritizing approaches to the shared vision of success. The dot-voting process can help illuminate the potentially disparate priorities of partners, and further discussion can help reveal the criteria participants used to cast their vote and guide discussion to achieve consensus.
“Conversation for Generating Possibility” and “Conversation for Generating Opportunity” in The Partnering Toolbook, a comprehensive guide to partnering across sectors from The Partnering Initiative, presents an imaginative brainstorming exercise encouraging all partners to envisage potential “breakthrough” outcomes for their collaboration and ultimately to agree on the collaboration’s shared commitment to pursuing a realistically achievable possibility (found on page 49). This exercise is designed to take from 30 minutes to just over an hour.
In some cases, it will be clear how the collaboration’s goals align with each partner’s organizational goals. In other cases, partners may consider more subtle ways that the collaboration’s vision is complementary to, or incompatible with, their own work, including assessing how the collaboration’s targeted outcomes support their own, even if the alignment is not explicit (e.g. the organization’s aim is to decrease childhood obesity, while the collaboration’s aim is to build a community farmer’s market); considering how successful collaboration outcomes may support their organization’s understanding of the issue; and evaluating whether contributions to the collaboration create tension with other organizational commitments. As the collaboration works to develop its shared vision of success, partners should be encouraged to communicate their differing priorities openly and honestly, so that the collaboration can surface areas of shared agreement and mutual benefit, building a solid foundation for its work.