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October 22, 2020
Six Key Components of Collaborative Solutions
By Tom Wolff

Tom Wolfe
Tom Wolff
Doing together what we cannot do apart—the essence of collaboration—is perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of the work that nonprofits do, but creating true collaborative solutions to achieve lasting change is frequently elusive.

Collaboration often fails for the most common of reasons: people don’t talk with each other and they won’t work with each other. On top of that, many of the systems on which individuals and nonprofits rely are fragmented. In practice, this often means many people working on the same problem, even within the same organization, tend to approach it separately.

If nonprofits are to fulfill their missions in an increasingly challenging world, creating and implementing collaborative solutions—solutions that draw on the strengths of many—offers a hopeful path forward. Here are six crucial components to consider when crafting collaborative solutions.

1. Encourage true collaboration as the form of exchange.

We use the term ”collaboration” quite easily, often glibly, without really defining the word. Arthur Himmelman has done us all a great service by defining collaboration and differentiating it from networking, coordination, and cooperation. Collaboration is exchanging information, modifying activities, sharing resources, and enhancing the capacity of another for mutual benefit and to achieve a common purpose by sharing risks, resources, responsibilities, and rewards.

2. Engage the full diversity of the community, especially those most directly affected.

Collaborative solutions require that we bring all the parties into the room with each other ”“ just that step is a triumph. Yet, we often try to resolve gang violence without gang members at the table, combat youth drug abuse without talking to the youth, or address the needs of new immigrant communities without bringing immigrants into the room. Creating settings where all voices can be heard, respected, and counted is our first step

3. Practice democracy and promote active citizenship and empowerment.

In successfully seeking collaborative solutions, we need to examine our own processes to see how we are encouraging and supporting civic engagement in a way that truly allows the airing of diverse issues and the pursuit of new solutions. This goes beyond just bringing those with the least power to the table; it means designing ways for all views to be heard and respected by those with more power ”“ not any easy task.

4. Employ an ecological approach that builds on community strengths.

The World Health Organization’s Ottawa Charter spells this out most clearly by listing the pre-requisites of health: peace, education, food, shelter, equity, income, social justice, a stable ecosystem, and sustainable resources. By listing these social determinants of health, the Ottawa Charter has set an individual’s health in the context of their larger environment. It is challenging for us to simultaneously understanding the individual and their interdependence with all sectors of the community.

5. Take action by addressing issues of social change and power on the basis of a common vision.

Community change, organizational change, and systems change happen when the group decides to act. Too often we sit around and study issues to death and never get around to creating change. In collaborative solutions we are not only looking for action, we are looking for action that addresses issues of social change and power based on a common vision. So, one of our first steps is to create a common vision, one that has been created and agreed upon by all the sectors of a community. Then, as we begin to act on the vision, we have to be willing to address issues of power

6. Engage spirituality as your compass for social change.

Working on collaborative solutions involves a spiritual aspect that is rarely talked about. This spiritual component shows up when we realize that the way in which we work must be congruent with the results we hope to produce: that the process must be aligned with the goals. Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to create in the world.” This quote speaks eloquently to the final principle of collaborative solutions. We must create collaborative solution processes that parallel and reflect what we hope the outcomes will look like.

Tom Wolff, Ph.D, of Tom Wolff & Associates, is the author of The Power of Collaborative Solutions: Six principles and effective tools for building healthy communities. Email him at
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