November 20, 2017
 
Collaboration Skills for Nonprofit Leaders

By Andy Robinson

Andy Robinson
In an era when few community needs can be met by nonprofits working on their own, leadership means building beneficial networks that include a diversity of perspectives and involve a variety or partners.

Interviews with 18 network leaders and a review of the current literature, based on work for the Institute for Conservation Leadership, generated the following eight tips for effective “net-centric” leadership.

Embrace ambiguity. The leaders we interviewed talked about living with multiple ambiguities: emerging membership models, partly defined roles, uncertain funding, power shifts among participants, partners that come and go. They are designing, building, and evaluating their networks while also managing them, and most are doing it without a map.

Some observers might confuse ambiguity with sloppiness or laziness; this would be a big mistake. Without exception, these people are well-organized, work hard, and are intentional about fulfilling their responsibilities. They survive and even thrive with a of lack of clarity that leaders in other circumstances might find intolerable.

Don’t obsess about structure. Almost without exception, these leaders expressed a deep wariness about getting entangled in debates over collective governance, membership, decision-making, or even the appropriate noun to describe their interrelationships.

“Structural details are spirit-killing” says Traci Barkley of Prairie Rivers Network. “Set them aside. Start by naming shared intentions and building trust.” Her colleague Glynnis Collins adds, “More structure would have driven out many essential participants. Having less structure allows things to bubble up.”

It’s all about logistics. While many leaders are cautious about creating formal structures, everyone mentioned the need for effective infrastructure: facilitation, coordination, and communication. Glynnis Collins calls this, “The leadership of taking on the logistics. The email reminders, typing up meeting notes, the stupid doodle polls...” She sighs. “Nobody has time to do this, but you do it anyway. These details hold the group together.”

Pay attention; trust your intuition. When asked to define network leadership skills, Joan Crooks of the Washington Environmental Council says, “Pay attention to brushfires and rumblings; don’t let them simmer.” Another advisory: “Pay attention to when an issue is ripe and ready, then move.” This combination of mindfulness plus an intuitive sense of when to lay back and wait, and when to push the group forward, is one of the most valuable assets in leading a collaborative effort.

Strive for less visible leadership. The Urban Sustainability Directors Network, a private professional network of municipal government sustainability officials, is intentionally built to honor network theory and practice. They regularly “map the network” to see who is connected to whom.

“They never include me in the map,” says coordinator Julia Parzen, with a touch of pride. “My goal is to have less and less go through me. One of our core principles is, if the members don’t lead it, let it go.” Adds Joan Crooks, “I make myself step back and let other ideas come forward.”

Practice humility. When asked what he does as a leader to make his collaboration successful, Ben Helphand of GreenNET, a Chicago community garden network, says, “Somebody had to stick their neck out. This whole thing is a weird leap of faith; we’re trying to get somewhere we haven’t thought of before.”

It’s all about relationships. Networks tend to succeed or fail based on how people feel about their participation, so effective leaders invest the time and effort to reinforce positive feelings and deeper connections. Nina Bohlen of Smart Growth California says, “One of our primary products is relationships. I try to come from a place of service. Much of my time is spent on relationship-building; it’s high-touch.”

Actively shape compromise. “All partners are not created equal,” says one seasoned leader – a shorthand way of describing the power imbalances inherent in any collaboration. It’s easy for the most powerful organizations to dominate discussions and decisions, which will eventually drive away the weaker partners. “ Cyn Sarthou, executive director of the Gulf Restoration Network, says, “You can’t be everything to everyone, so don’t get paralyzed. Walk through the minefield. If people don’t follow through, if they change their minds at the last minute, if they can’t agree to disagree – well, move on without them.”

It may have always been true, but it’s even truer today: most problems we face cannot be solved by individual nonprofits working on their own. Big, long-term challenges like climate change, health care reform, and ending poverty can only be addressed by building effective networks. Network leaders are the leaders of the future, and that future is now.

The full report is available from the Institute for Conservation Leadership.

Andy Robinson consults with nonprofits across the country on fundraising, board development, community organizing, and related issues. Contact him at www.andyrobinsononline.com.
April 2013

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