Thursday, 21 January 2016

Collaboration – Comfort or Crucial

The social sector today has realised the difference between the impact of working for change in isolation versus a more structured cross-sector coalition. Today NGOs are increasingly finding worth, value and merit in working closely with other NGOs, as also with government and corporates for social change. Organizations around the world have begun to see collective impact as a new and more effective process for social transformation. Here are some of the voices from the sector capturing what they feel about collaboration. 

What Are Some Pre-Requisites Of A Good Collaboration?
  • Collaboration is less about creating similarities and more about embracing differences. It’s critical for both sides to understand what they excel at and then work with those who complement them.
  • Alliances require alignment in core values and approaches. Required for reasons having more to do with ideologies than about process.
  • Specific goals are more useful than a common cause. Rather than focus on just the macro cause (education), have specific goals such as ‘target beneficiaries in specific schools would gain a certain curriculum.’
  • The partnership should be based on familiarity and trust and run deeper than just work. Important but unpredictable challenges such as culture, decision-making, risk acceptance, resource availability can best be addressed when there’s trust to draw upon.
We asked our NGOs what they see as key fundamentals for effective collaboration?
Hema Ganachari has been in exports almost all through her career. She switched to the developmental sector for the last 6 years. She manages Operations at Idobro Impact Solutions, a social enterprise that works with women, social and green initiatives to multiply their impact. “I believe that collaboration is absolutely essential when we want to achieve far reaching and meaningful results, especially in the development sector. To be effective, I believe that the most critical pre-requisites for forging effective collaborations are clarity in, the objective and goals, both at organisation and individual level. Understanding what each collaborator is bringing to the table and the level of expertise. I have experienced that there is sometimes a mismatch perceived in the levels of expertise in the stakeholders, before and after the agreement hence also defining roles and responsibilities post collaboration.”

Over the past 30 years, (IDEX International Development Exchange) has supported more than 500 grassroots, community-led projects led by women, youth and indigenous people in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Trishala Deb is the Regional Director for Asia. Her views, “I'd say the primary ingredient is a real commitment to genuine success of all the parties. The only way to get to impactful partnerships are honest, significant and thorough knowledge of our mutual interests, strategies and differences. I also think that it helps to proactively engage differences, and not be afraid of them since they are often the source of collective efficacy.”

Ashoka Social Innovators is the one of the largest networks of social entrepreneurs worldwide, with over 3,000 Ashoka Fellows in 70 countries creating large-scale impact through new innovations. Olina Banerji, as part of the Venture and Fellowship team, leads the engagement strategy with senior Ashoka Fellows by building supportive platforms, conversations and connections. She adds, “The cornerstone of effective collaboration is trust, the willingness to let go and agility with your idea/organisation. Collaboration works when individuals within organisations have the determination to see the partnership through. Another key fundamental is a joint, mutually affirming purpose.”

Cuddles Foundation is striving to help impoverished, helpless children survive the trauma of cancer. Their founder Purnota Bahl sees 3 clear fundamentals. Clear Division of labour where each partner knows what the other is doing and that there is no duplication of effort.
Transparency that leads to trust - there should be clarity in terms of donors being approached, plans and goals. Clear downward communication: many a times the management of the NGOs are in sync while there is no clarity in the ranks downwards. Hence, the purpose of partnerships, the goals and the clear division of labour has to be communicated clearly.

 All four organisations shared positive experiences 
Hema – “Every year, we organise our annual flagship event, the RISE Summit, which attempts to bring together the Corporations, Government, NGOs and the Academia, with the objective to start at least a dialogue between stakeholders to collaborate to achieve their goals. I am happy to share a success story, where through the RISE Summit, a corporation is achieving the double objective of dealing with MDF waste on the one hand, and using it to create livelihood opportunities for an NGO, on the other. The project is its final stages of the pilot, and looks to be successful.”

Trishala – “IDEX is built on the idea that all relationships can be partnerships. We commit to our partners in the field for 5-30 years. We engage in funding collaborations, artists in residence programs, and experimental ventures with donors. We treat each partnership as a genuine long-term dialogue, which surpasses any transactional value.”

Olina – “Our organisation works primarily through collaborating with its stakeholders. There have been several successful partnerships with Fellows such as the Nutrition Programme, the Housing For All programme and the Changemaker Schools Programme, where we have worked with schools, businesses and other CSOs to drive common outcomes.”
Purnota - Yes, we have collaborated successfully with other NGOs working in the field of cancer like Sanjeevani and Chetna foundation. However while trying to work with a NGOs in the exact same field of paediatric cancer, we have not been able to collaborate. NGOs in the same field seem to focus a lot of energy on work, which they can brand and take credit for without really focussing on the big picture. This has been the biggest limiting factor for us.
Cross Sector Ngo- Corporate Partnerships - Can We Address Imbalances Of Power In Cross-Sector Partnerships?
While most say, ‘Opposites Attract’, is that true of NGO – Corporate Partnerships? While some feel corporate solutions are not always suited to grass-root level problems; other feel there is adequate opportunity for successful cross learning and cross working.

Corporations and NGOs are very different in their goals, structures, motivating factors and work cultures. They enter into relationships with each other with differing objectives. The primary motivation for a company to enter such a partnership is to enhance its brand, reputation and credibility by doing social good. On the other hand, NGOs enter partnerships primarily to access funds.

What does effective collaboration look like when a nutrition program for children in India involves a government health department, an overseas agency, and local and international NGOs? Is it even possible for these partners to work together collaboratively and effectively when such different levels of influence exist? Each brings different strengths and abilities to the table.
NGOs have strong relationships with the local community, the overseas agency would have great technical resources and experience, and the government would have the ability to make decisions on operations and approaches. Each may be doing excellent work, but more often than not - in parallel rather than together. 
 Do you think partnerships can be effective if there are imbalances in power or abilities? To what degree should flexibility be maintained?
Hema most certainly believes that a collaboration is easier between 2 parties where one is much “more equal than the other”, in terms of abilities; where the strengths and weaknesses are clearly seen and understood. “Where 2 organisations are similar in strengths and abilities, clear roles and responsibilities will need to be laid down if the collaboration is to achieve its objective. Trust in each partner would be crucial to maintain any flexibility.”
Olina considers an exercise of power is anti-thetical to a successful partnership. “It should be premised on equality and openess. Flexibility is important because despite best efforts, there are things that may not go according to plan. However appropriating blame in this situation is not useful. The partnership work load should also play to the strengths of each partner. Quite simply, define the scope of work in a manner that partners complement each other.”

What are some of the steps/measures you would take to ensure the partnership remains effective and sustainable?
Trishala has a practical outlook, “With partners in the field, we make long term, multiyear funding commitments. This means that our annual monitoring and evaluation data is not tied to annual funding. On that basis, we can have really honest conversations about the merits and lessons learned from different program and development strategies. Everyone learns more through this process.”
Olina suggests, “A good partnership relies on specific point people both sides, who are completely on board with the scope of the project, its timelines and its ultimate objective. They should have prior clarity of roles and how the partnership is useful both partners. Another key move is to incorporate timely check-ins to ensure that things are on track not just operationally but also in terms of the vision of each partner. Partners should be honest sounding boards for each other and considerable time should be spent aligning the organisations initially in the partnership.”

How would you gauge if your partnership has been effective? Do you have any tools/benchmarks to measure effectiveness?
Hema’s suggestion –“ Simple common tools like logical framework analysis, M&E plan and theory of change with little bit of tweaking are quite capable of analysing and assessing the effectiveness and impact of the partnership. We have to add a section in these tools telling us which organisation is responsible for a particular activity. The more the project is broken down into activities, and the responsibilities are assigned, the easier it will be to measure the effectiveness. A comparison of the actual activities with those as per the initial document will be a good way to measure effectiveness.”
Trishala’s recommendation, “We have an annual evaluation tool that is tied to our theory of change, and is designed to track information from the standpoint of the organizations that are doing the work. Effective partnership is gauged on whether organizations are meeting their own goals for progress, and it the collaboration with IDEX has included more support than just funding. IDEX strives to develop each relationship with support from funding, capacity building, relationships with other organizations, communications tools, and long term problem solving.” 
Purnotta admits that they don’t have a numeric metric yet to gauge the impact. “Delivery of aid in the smoothest way possible and alleviation of the issue is the most effective way to gauge the partnership. The ease of both the teams to work collaboratively is also a great way to gauge how successful the relationship is.”
No matter how effective the collaboration, there is bound to be, a small degree of disagreements be it in ideology, method or approach. To conclude we asked how our organisations would manage it.
Hema ends, “I feel that timely communications and regular meetings / updates, trainings will minimise disagreements, and will make it easier to control any such issues. Lastly, but most importantly, willingness, trust and patience will also determine the effectiveness and sustainability of the collaboration.
Tishala closes, “We expect differences and disagreements, and treat them all as learning opportunities. Since none of our funding agreements are tied to project support, and are all general operating grants, we are never in a position to disagree over an implementation strategy. Therefore, it's through dialogue, learning and evaluation that we can understand why organizations and leaders make the choices that they do.
Purnota proposes, “Regular team meetings, an open mind and the willingness to reach a compromise is the only way to manage control. Also, a very important point is discussing what are non-negotiable in the relationship. Also at what point the partnership should be dissolved helps the NGOs to watch out for the red flags and avoid conflicts.”
Olina concludes, “A face-to-face, honest conversation where both sides are open and vulnerable enough to understand each other's perspectives. A useful way may also be to have programme managers and others working on the partnership to undergo exercises in active listening and communications.” 
This article is excepted from out Interaction Article from CAP quarterly newsmagazine (Sept-Dec 15 issue) 'Philanthropy'. To read the entire article or request your printed copy write to us at

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