Cross-sector Collaboration Is Broken. Can We Fix It?

Our systems are not designed for structured collaboration. We don't fund it properly. We don't structure it effectively. We don't commit to it. And then we wonder why our half-hearted attempts don't live up to the promised impact for our communities, organisations and industries.

Collaboration… what reaction does the word evoke for you? Excitement, energy and promise? Or a feeling of dread and what-a-waste-of-time-I-don’t-have.

If you’re like most people I speak to in the social sector, you feel like you should be collaborating more, but lack the time and resources to make it happen. And that can leave you feeling guilty or, even worse, doubting the value of collaboration at all.

I first noticed this while working for Lifehack. We brought talented people together and time and again I would hear people roll their eyes at the word 'collaborate' - even though they were in the room to do just that!

Why do we roll our eyes at collaboration?

In my eyes, it boils down to a lack of genuine opportunity to work together on shared goals. Our work and social environment doesn’t enable it. The system is not designed for structured collaboration.

Our organisational leaders urge us to Collaborate More! But they don’t carve out time in our job descriptions. Genuine collaboration is messy and time-consuming, and can’t be completed as an add-on to your business-as-usual – but that’s the expectation.

Philanthropic funders try to pick isolated winners. They commit their money to the most promising projects proposed by individual organisations. (Exceptions exist, of course, but that’s the topic of a later blog post…) They incetivise us to compete against each other, and so – unsurprisingly – we compete against each other.

Government can talk a big game about collaboration, and certainly, there are signs of progress in how it identifies and supports collective impact. But the general rule is still to fund individual organisations for their individual efforts.

If not collaboration, then what?

A growing body of evidence suggests that collaboration requires more structure and discipline that we currently give. Collaboration itself isn’t the problem; it’s how we’re doing it.

And that’s what I hope to explore with you over the next ten weeks.

We’ll look at some of the emerging and existing approaches, like Collective Impact, Social Labs, Public Engagement, Community Based Social Marketing, and Design for Social Innovation. And we’ll investigate some of the work around New Zealand to put these approaches into practice.

I don’t pretend to be an expert or leader in any of these fields. Rather, I’m a curious chap trying to wade through the jargon and make sense of the complexity.

If you’re working on complex social challenges, I encourage you to join me for this exploration over the next ten weeks. I’ll be sharing one post each week. My aim is to help progress our shared understanding of what it means to collaborate for social impact.

I'll be emailing these posts by email, so sign up for notifications below!