Wednesday, February 11, 2015

How Funders Can Guarantee Coblaboration

What should a a foundation do to guarantee the worst possible result from a collaboration they are working on?

While that might sound like a ridiculous question, it actually proved to be quite helpful when Robert Allbright of FSG posed it to a group of funders participating in workshop on sustaining successful funder collaboratives. (The workshop was part of the Collective Impact Forum.) Using a problem solving technique called TRIZ, which was new to all of the participants, Robert asked us to come up with a list of all of the things we could do as funders to make sure we achieved the worst result possible result -- which I call "coblaboration."

Here's a partial list of the behaviors we came up with:

  • Assume you know what needs to be done.
  • Control the process.
  • Limit engagement.
  • Gather input and then ignore it.
  • Don't communicate.
  • Be opaque about your motives.
  • Don't measure progress.
  • Reject ideas.
  • Put conditions on your participation.
  • Be unclear as to how decisions are made.
  • Refuse to show up.
  • Work at cross-purposes.
  • Favor grantees over outcomes.
  • Have no theory of change.
  • Let your ego and your logo get in the way.
  • Shift focus/priorities regularly.
  • Don't look at the big picture.
  • Be impatient.
  • Be linear.
  • Insist on timelines.
  • Don't invest in planning.
  • Expect huge system outcomes, but don't invest in capacity to coordinate the system.
  • Listen to the loudest voice in the room.
  • Bully others if you can. (Thank you Ken Thompson for this outstanding contribution.) 
As part of the TRIZ exercise, Robert then challenged us to ask, "Is there anything that I am currently doing that resembles these items?" Of course the answer was yes much more than we would like to admit to ourselves, let alone to our peers.

This exercise (and the additional elements to it) helped serve as a reminder that getting foundations to collaborate is very difficult, in part because funders regularly behave in ways that disrupt the collaboration process. The good news is foundations have great freedom to choose how they act. Foundations, for the most part, don't face the constraints that public and corporate funders must deal with. Foundations have more freedom to decide what steps they will take to stop (or at least limit) the behaviors cited above.

Foundations can expect themselves (and their peers) to act in ways that lead to collaboration, rather than behaviors that result in little more than coblaboration.

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