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Is Collaboration Just a Trendy Word?

This post first appeared on Realized Worth on February 11, 2013.

This post first appeared on Realized Worth on February 11, 2013.

Is it just me or is everyone talking about collaboration? Prominent business journals such as the Harvard Business Review are continuing to express the possibilities of affecting large-scale social change through unconventional, maybe even competitive, partnerships.

In my marketing consulting days, I attended a management program offered by our parent organization. We explored a business case on agency collaboration — a success story of how trust, loyalty and good relationships, and some luck were critical to success. Normally competitive agencies were struggling to figure out the secret sauce of collaboration: How do we all come together, play nice in the sandbox, get our job done, while providing our clients with a single-source solution for all their marketing needs?

FSG, a non-profit consulting firm, has been exploring collective impact extensively and has recently renewed the role of the backbone organization. But fast-forward a few years and we are still just figuring out how we all get along to achieve similar, if not the same, outcomes. In 2011, I attended the Boston College for Corporate Citizenship Conference and asked a panel of seasoned CSR practitioners about the possibility of companies collaborating to create greater change. Lots of head nods and full-on agreement that companies need to do this. But for some reason these efforts are either not well-publicized, or aren’t happening in Canada. It seems the concept of collaboration (especially between private sector businesses) sounds very hard to execute, politically impossible and frankly, way too time-consuming. Yet instead of running for the hills, I want to dive right in and envision how true collaboration could achieve significant social change.

The A-Team is out there

Imagine a company that cares about a cause, any cause — let’s say hunger. They invest time, money and energy in caring about hungry people in their communities — they hold food drives and cut a cheque to local food banks every so often. Another company, specializing in logistics, transports food between food drives and food banks and helps agencies optimize their routes and sorting process. An enterprise software company helps manage the inventory at the food banks with a centralized system for the community to share. Then, a manufacturer of nutritious products in cans donates it to food banks, and their employees love feeling great about this.

Another organization, a national not-for-profit, knows that food banks are part of the answer, but not the only solution — they are advocating for the working poor and are looking at innovative ways to get better food into our communities. At the same time, a government agency is trying to determine how to better support individuals on social assistance, working in concert with a university to research the issue.

Not only are the core competencies of these organizations helpful to solving big problems, but there are leaders and the talent within these companies that care to help, and can be activated at various skill levels to give back.

While I don’t have permission to name these organizations, you get the idea of how intertwined this network is —and perhaps you see it in the community around you.

Unifying for a higher purpose

The connection is too hard to ignore — they are all trying to do the same thing. They all care about the same social outcomes. My hope is that this is where shared responsibility lies — it’s not any one’s responsibility, it’s about the strongest players coming together to make a difference on the scale where big change can happen. No one player ‘owns’ the cause; it’s a societal problem, and if companies plan on ‘owning’ and aligning with a cause, then maybe they can own the solution — or find others to help.

We can turn to a shortage of capital and resources to explain ailments in our society. But look at all the competencies that exist across all sectors, the volume of individuals who volunteer inside and outside of organizations, the dollars donated in the thousands and millions — imagine how all that combined scale, in a concerted way, could actually achieve something.

What’s holding back the private sector from collaborating with each other? Let’s figure out what the barriers are and get started on breaking them down. Working together is hard, but how and when will we decide that it’s worth it for our communities?