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Collaboration Is A Disco Ball

LouisianaFiveBandstand1-2I hope we have your attention. (Disco ball??) This month’s theme – Collaboration – is not an easy one. Thanks to many years of the sharpest minds studying how we can better work together, we might be prone to think we understand it. But, simply understanding collaboration is itself a problem if practice lags behind. We have a few powerful examples in the social sector, but the charge from there is twofold: Keep learning. Keep putting current knowledge to wider use. Let’s refresh our thinking (and our work) on collaboration by looking at it through the data lens. At the beginning and the end, however, it’s not about the tech and methodologies. It’s about the clear need to work this way to make lives better. On that note, I appreciate Somaly Mam‘s thought: “It’s too big for us. We want our action to be part of a whole chain of action…”

You know the disco ball. It’s that nightlife talisman that blesses the party… since, well, before disco. [Image Above: Louisiana Five jazz band on a small bandstand with disco ball overhead, circa 1919]. And when the party is going strong, we take a strange (often unwitting) comfort that it turns, not as much concerned in the wee hours about why it turns.

Collaborations share that kind of fame; they are powerful agents in the social sector and beyond because they work. But, why they work remains, unfortunately, an academic point, perhaps literally so, as practice lags behind theory.

According to the Stanford Social Innovation Review, the gap between the knowing and the doing may be bigger than we think as “the social sector remains focused on the isolated intervention of individual organizations.” This isn’t to say that we don’t have solid examples of collaborations. A few are mentioned in the same SSIR piece. However, the dearth of examples is one fact that brings us to this topic.

Why do we need collaborations today?

The base logic is clear: There is no way that our “best individual efforts can’t stack up against today’s complex and interconnected problems.” But, we can drill down to call out what makes collaboration vital to this moment in time.

Collaborations are needed today because of the tough macro-level economics that can only exacerbate the structural problems in education, housing, employment and other social issues that we are already confronting.

Consider the fact that we are currently in economic recovery. And that is the problem; it’s only a recovery from an 18 month recession that ended in 2009, not an expansion. The hoped-for “rising tide” has proven to be more of a “survivor’s ebb and flow.” A telling feature of this recovery is that the Dow now hangs comfortably over 15,000 up from recession lows in the 6000s. But stock market recovery is not economic recovery. And jobs growth has remained anemic.

The social sector is not idling in this scenario: there is significant evidence of an increasing demand for collaboration among nonprofit organizations. According to the 2013 State of the Sector Survey conducted by the Nonprofit Finance Fund, 50% of the 5983 respondents to the survey noted that they plan to “collaborate in the next 12 months with another org. to improve/increase services.” 39% of them have already done so in the period covering the last 12 months.

What we propose for this theme

Given this economic context and the appetite for collaboration in the sector, initiatives that are driven or facilitated by data and information show potential to enable us to do more without strikingly more resources.


  • We will explore how collaborations use data to strengthen the quality and impact of the collaboration
  • We will explore how data-focused collaborations can be strengthened and more integrated into participating organizations’ ways of working

Now is our moment to find new models that can match the weight and speed of the problems we face. Further, we should zero in on the pressing challenge presented by data: many high-functioning collaborations, and especially those centered around service delivery, require an information architecture that defines specific partner responsibilities to create and share data, report to stakeholders, measure progress toward shared goals …and to recalibrate when necessary.

We’ll hear from organizations, technologists, and beneficiaries about collaborative impact and the role of data in achieving it. We are particularly excited in this first week to feature the release of The Foundation Center‘s new report produced along with Monitor and Deloitte: “Harnessing Collaborative Technologies.” Accompanying the release is the launch of a stunner of a collaboration tool hosted by Designed for funders, the tool is an interactive and open application featuring aggregated data on philanthropy searchable by collaborative need and by preferred collaboration tool.

Along the route, we aim to keep the discussion lively with a line-up of contributions from the Social Innovation Exchange, Venture Philanthropy Partners, and other guest contributors with much to say on the topic. Join us in the conversation and comments.