Thursday, April 27, 2017

A Streetcar Named Collaboration

While collaborations can easily become complex, multi-faceted associations between several organizations, in its simplest form, a collaboration begins as dyadic relationship between a non-profit organization and another non-profit organization, a for-profit company, or a government agency. Typically, this dyad includes two individuals representing their organization.

Much like A Streetcar Named Desire, the role each party plays in collaboration depends on their goals and perspectives. Blanche Dubois is ruled by her philosophy and often adjusts for harsh realities by misrepresenting them or ignoring them. Non-profit organizations often fail to marriage their philosophical goals with their collaboration goals and, in failing to frame their vision for the collaboration (UnitedWay Worldwide, 2008) with fundamental process factors of success (Sharma and Missey, 1998), non-profit organizations fail to sustain collaborations. Stanley Kowalski, on the other hand, is rooted in dichotomous truths and instinct. Government agencies and for-profit companies, particularly the latter, have dichotomous 'bottom lines' that not only measure their success, but are unflinchingly rigid and often dominate the collaboration.

Here, I examine one non-profit collaboration specifically, identify the role played (Blanche vs. Stanley), and examine the success of the collaboration.

La Alianza Hispana and the Boston Dept. of Social Services (Non-Profit and Gov't Agency)
After years of criticism for lacking cultural competency and an increasing caseload, the Boston Department of Social Services (DSS) approached La Alianza Hispanaa (La Alianza, for short) with a harsh proposal: Either lose all DSS funding (which constituted a significant percentage of La Alianza's income) or accept a substantial increase in funding to provide all child protection and case management services to Latino children in Boston (a service that La Alianza had never provided before) (Varley, 1996).

Here, DSS is clearly Stanley because their goal was measurably dichotomous and their approach was rigid. For DSS, success was getting La Alianza to accept the contract (dichotomous) and their approach disallowed collaboration and often shuttered communication (rigid).

La Alianza played Blanche because while they stuck to their overall philosophy of bettering life for the Latino community in Boston, they ignored the major fault with the collaboration, which was a lack of communication and a lack of negotiation. Some of their board members verbalized their concerns that the per case funding was insufficient to cover overhead and the role they played in the Latino community would be severely compromised, but they did very little to address the stark imbalance in power dynamics. Further, La Alizanza would have been agreeing to provide a service that they had no experience in providing. While some training would have been provided by DSS, La Alianza would ultimately be shifting toward mission creep in fear of losing their funding.

This collaboration was unsuccessful for several reasons. According to Mattesich and Monsey’s Collaboration: What Makes It Work, as cited by Sharma and Missey (1998), there are nineteen factors for successful collaborations spanning six categories. Of them, sixteen went unfulfilled. Yes, the sociopolitical environment corroborated the collaboration and was an opportunity for success. The Latino community in Boston was expanding and suffering due to the crack-cocaine epidemic, which both DSS and La Alianza recognized as a moment of intervention. However, the history between DSS and the La Alianza (and the Latino community at large) was strained with no sign of reversal, flexibility and adaptability were ostensibly disallowed, resources were insufficient, and communication was poor. Further, a namely due to the lack of communication and lack or flexibility, shared-decision making was absent and the vision for the collaboration was not shared between both parties, two keys of a successful collaboration identified by the National Civic League (UnitedWay Worldwide, 2008).

Other Types of Non-Profit Collaborations
As mentioned earlier, non-profit organizations also collaborate with for-profit companies and other non-profits, but the barriers to success are no different. When City Year partnered with Tiberland to provide apparel, both parties were somewhere between Blanche and Stanley. However, when Timberland’s bottom-line was at-risk (they saw slowed growth and declining profits), they abandoned the project because their measure of success did not include/measure value from the branding association – it only included profit. This collaboration would have been more successful if Timberland had expanded their measures of success to include multiple aspects along the value creation spectrum because the associational value was complementary for both parties, especially Timberland (Austin and Seitanidi as cited by Renz, 2016).

A non-profit collaboration with another non-profit faces the same challenges, particularly when vision and philosophy aren’t shared as those flexible definitions fuel non-profit work. In the collaboration between the Seattle Art Museum (SAM) and Low-Income Housing, the vision for funding allocation, political capital, and implementation was not shared between each party and the underlying philosophies clashed, resulting in an inability to communicate to the public the value added through the collaboration.

Overall, collaborations are neither sustainable nor successful when either party takes on an extreme role like Blanche or Stanley. So, avoid the dramatics, communicate, and collaborate in the decision-making. And make a checklist!