Eight Lessons on Collaboration
Leaders across the social sector have recently been emphasizing the importance of collaboration, with good reason. When done well, coordinating funding, integrating data, and aligning programs focused on a single issue can have tremendous results. But successful collaboration requires time, money, and a strong commitment from all involved—often more resources than organizations have available.
Root Cause recently completed a project with Boston After School and Beyond, an organization that is an excellent example of the promise of collaboration. Boston Beyond is a public-private partnership focused on improving the out-of-school time sector in Boston. Its entire role is about building better partnerships and creating the infrastructure that can support collaboration—between schools, after school and summer programs, city government, funders, and other nonprofits—all focused toward better educational and social experiences for kids. The fact that Boston Beyond is purely an intermediary (it runs no in-school programs itself) helps it coordinate among those involved in the sector. Because it isn’t competing for resources or students, or advocating for a particular part of the sector over others, it is able to serve as a clear voice for the kinds of collaborations, reforms, and funding needed to advance the work of the sector as a whole.
Root Cause worked with Boston After School and Beyond to draw lessons from a four-year initiative the organization managed to develop stronger partnerships between afterschool programs and schools at ten school-based sites across the city (access the full report here). Much of what we found in our conversations with school leaders, after school staff, school administration, government officials, funders, and researchers had larger implications for building successful collaboration in other sectors. Of the many lessons we highlighted for Boston Beyond and its board, eight stand out as lessons particularly relevant to other sectors and initiatives focused on collaboration:
Eight lessons on collaboration
- Better coordination of data can help identify high—and low—performers, helping to determine who preferred providers might be.
- Centralizing data takes significant effort, but is possible with the proper resources and leverage. To build buy-in from individual programs, having funders mandate participation in a shared data system and providing indirect incentives for participation such as professional development support are effective strategies.
- A shared outcomes framework can help all players discuss their impact in the same language and drive toward the same results.
- A site-based partnership coordinating role between programs provided significantly increased capacity to build and maintain strong relationships, align practices across programs, and bridge gaps.
- Collective action requires all players to see an individual benefit. Incentives like capacity building can encourage participation. Finding partners with aligned strategic goals can also aid in building stronger partnerships.
- Clear communication about goals at the beginning —including timelines, budgets, andprogram priorities—is important in helping partners avoid confusion and ensuring that the purpose of the project is clear to all.
- Leadership is necessary at all levels. When parts of an initiative struggle, it is often a result of a failure in leadership, either within individual programs, or sector-wide. Successes are also often the result of successful leadership: articulating a clear vision, being open to discussion and compromise, and providing a clear sense of direction.
- Successful pilot programs funded with private dollars can leverage some ongoing public funding, but already tight government budgets are hard to influence. Identifying low-cost successes for pilots, such as new structures for staffing or new ways to align programming, can help provide longevity to a program if significant public funding is not readily available.
Boston After School and Beyond is in a strong position to continue to build upon these lessons as it works to develop the essential ingredients that will help strengthen collaboration in out-of-school time. But the organization also demonstrates the challenges of building deep, lasting collaborations—they take significant work. To meet their full potential, large-scale collaboration efforts require dedicated staff time, deliberate planning, and a clear understanding of the resources necessary for sustainability. The results, however, can be transformational.