If this is the sector that was supposed to change the world, how come the world has not changed?
This week’s Stop Sign on the Road to Changing the World is the one we all blame: Money. Or more to the point, not enough money. Or even more to the point, having to compete for that not-enough-money.
STOP Sign: Competition and Collaboration (Part 1)
Whenever we are visiting a new community, there is nothing more fun than gathering a group of funders to talk about community impact. Wherever we go, we always start with the same question:
“What is keeping the millions of dollars you are already investing in your community from creating significantly more impact?”
The answer is virtually the same in every community:
There are so many organizations in our community, all competing for limited resources. They simply will not work together. And they refuse to consider merging. And…
Then we ask the follow-up question: “So, do you all have competitive grant processes?”
Some around the table smile – they see where that question is headed. Others, however, declare proudly, “Absolutely!” And so we are forced to add, “Then why do you think those organizations compete?”
Sometimes the hardest part about walking our talk is realizing that we are actually exhibiting the very behaviors we dislike in others. Funders hate that their grantees compete, and yet they forget that they are the ones creating that competition in the first place.
Funders certainly know something is not working. And they really do want things to be different. That is why so many funders require the organizations they fund to collaborate.
But this only adds insult to injury. First we create competition. Then to fix the problems caused by that very competition, we force collaboration.
And as we all know too well, requiring collaboration as a condition of funding has not exactly fostered a spirit of cooperation among the organizations in our communities.
Unfortunately, though, that is not the end of the tale. Because from there, the funding process then forces those collaborations to compete against each other! Now we have whole groups of folks who want to do amazing work for their communities, among whom only one group will win the prize of actually being able to do that work.
We could not do a better job of setting ourselves up to fail if we tried!
Real Cooperation and Real Collaborative Funding
If you have children, or if you remember what it was like to be a child with siblings, you know what happens when you are told that you won’t get your allowance unless you start getting along with your sister. Wanting your allowance may have made you stop being mean to her, but it didn’t make you happy to be together. It just quieted things down until the next explosion.
So what can we do? That question is really 2 questions.
1) How can we develop a community-wide spirit of cooperation, rather than merely the window dressings of collaborative mechanisms?
2) How can we fund any other way but competitively?
It would take a whole book to dive into the depths of why and how – and it’s a good thing I am writing that book! But until it is released in October, this week I will provide the Reader’s Digest version of the answer to #1 – fostering a spirit of cooperation. Then next week we will do the same with the issue of non-competitive funding.
Update October 2009: The book is done! It is The Pollyanna Principles and you can find it here (including the first 4 chapters free online).
Establishing a Spirit of Cooperation
Let’s get back to our conversation with funders.
As our discussions have continued, we have asked if those funders ever provide the opportunity for organizations in their community to come together informally, to just get to know each other. The answer is almost always that yes, they do convene groups. “Under what circumstances?” we ask. Unfortunately, the two most common circumstances are these:
1) Funders convene providers to announce and provide details for a grant round
2) Funders convene providers for workshops, to learn fundraising and other skills
In other words, funders most commonly convene organizations to either give them the opportunity to compete with each other, or to learn how to compete more effectively against each other.
Our suggestion is that funders begin convening organizations to just get together, period. Convene organizations to talk together, to learn things together that are specifically and intentionally NOT about competing, but about finding new ways to build something incredible together. Our suggestion is that funders provide every opportunity they can for organizations to just build trust and explore possibilities together. Till the soil, plant the seeds, and let collaborative efforts naturally arise on their own. You will probably be surprised at how quickly that will happen.
Talk about leveraging funder resources! This is a way to significantly increase the impact of those existing dollars – at virtually no extra cost, and with tons of extra benefit.
In our experience, providers absolutely do want to work together, and when given the chance to create something positive together, they will do so – and do so enthusiastically. Like funders, these are folks who chose their work because they want to make a difference.
So let’s encourage and inspire them by giving them every opportunity to do so, rather than prescribing that they do so under the threat of withholding funding. We humans tend to balk when we are told what to do. We don’t like to be threatened, and forcing collaboration in order to get much needed funding is just that. We may do what the party in control tells us to do, but we will not do it with enthusiasm. We will do it because that is what we need to do to survive.
But inspire us, encourage us, support us, believe in us – and we will move mountains to get the job done. And to inspire cooperation, sometimes all you need to do is give people the space and the support to inspire themselves.
One More Thing
Let’s check back in with our room full of funders one more time. As the discussion has become more candid, we have one more question: “As funders, do you all collaborate among yourselves?” By this point in the conversation, the response is usually just that everyone laughs.
Here is what we encourage that room full of funders to do:
“Learn to work together. Learn to do it well. Then teach it, and provide the wisdom that comes from experience. That is one more way to leverage your funding – teaching from that knowledge. And all it will cost you is the time it takes to improve how you do what you do.”
And then we tell them one more thing:
Working together is a lot more fun.
So let’s get rid of the Stop Sign of forced collaboration, and start encouraging and inspiring those who care about our communities to work together, side by side, to make our communities better places to live.
For 11 Ways Funders Can Encourage Community-Wide Collaboration, Click here.
Next Wednesday: Part 2 of this week’s Stop Sign will address the issue of Competitive Funding. Hint: It doesn’t have to be like that (but you knew I would say that!).