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Whose project is it, anyway? In search of equitable collaborations

neon handshake sign

We read textbooks, scholarly journals, and articles on best practices for collaboration, touting the benefits in great detail, and barely glossing over the downsides. The reality is often messy, and no one wants to be the one who shares all the gory details. As a result, many of us go into collaborations wide-eyed and bushy-tailed, not knowing the dangers that lurk within. Yet it is these very lessons that need to be shared so that others who come after us can structure collaborations in a manner that codifies roles, responsibilities, risks, and rewards; maximizes transparency and accountability; outlines the rules of the road, so to speak; and describes how decisions will be made and how conflicts will be resolved.

While I have been blessed to have been a part of some great collaborations in which the outcomes were better than any individual or single entity could achieve, I have also been part of collaborations that didn’t work so well. Even though I learned a lot from the collaborations that worked, I have learned infinitely more from those that didn’t work. I think you can relate.

There have been times I’ve invited people to work with me, only to have been outmaneuvered politically, finding myself on the outside looking in, while others reaped the economic benefits of my work. There have been other times when I have made grants to collaborations that fell apart because at least one of the collaborative partners “didn’t play nicely in the sandbox,” or perform as agreed. I have seen other collaborations that functioned nicely only until funding was granted. In those cases, there were no rules concerning how to equitably compensate people who created value and the terms and conditions under which funding would be divided amongst the collaborative partners.

Ironically, I have learned, through some of my very best efforts at structuring collaborative agreements in a manner that minimizes conflict, that it is impossible to legislate collaboration. Either people have the hearts, minds, and core values to behave ethically, or they don’t. Legal documents don’t change the essence of who we are. However, having a formal agreement in writing does mitigate the risks involved, and provides for legal remedies in the event of disputes.

It is very important to consult with an attorney as early as possible in the formative stages of the collaboration—even if you’re dealing with people with whom you have been acquainted with for years. And yes, this includes people that you consider to be friends and colleagues. Every collaboration is different and has different levels of risks and rewards. On top of that, people’s circumstances and motives can vary over time.

I have learned a lot over the years and have gotten much better at collaboration. Even so, there are still questions that I find must be asked to inform the collaboration. Others are still subject to further exploration. For example, for those projects that aim to develop broad-based community coalitions to create new initiatives that scale programs and services: who really owns the resulting proprietary processes and systems, particularly when the group facilitating the initiative is not a legal entity? Who owns intellectual property that is developed as a result? Who gets to decide who can and cannot participate? What objective criteria should be used to determine who gets accepted, screened out, or voted off the island? How do we ensure that collaborative partners and other community stakeholders are properly recognized and fairly compensated for their contributions to the success of the initiative?

What role can philanthropy play in facilitating an equitable planning and implementation process? How do we ensure that the due diligence they perform goes beyond looking at annual reports and 990s to better understand the community dynamics and take into account the voices of a broad range of local actors? How do we prevent marginalization of stakeholders based on criteria that have nothing to do with their ability to help the collaborative produce positive outcomes? How do we make sure that the people who are most impacted by the work have a real voice and power in the process and not just a listing on a roster?

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t think anyone does. However, I am sufficiently curious that I will spend time exploring the possibilities, incorporating the findings in my work and sharing what I learn. I love the sound of Kumbaya.


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  • Valerie Leonard says:

    May 8, 2020 8:04 am

    Thanks so much for sharing your thoughts, Mark. I'm glad you liked the article. Your comments have caused me to think of doing a case study as a class exercise, in which students or workshop participants can play roles to apply lessons learned.

  • Mark Brooks says:

    May 5, 2020 4:49 pm

    Hi Valerie,
    Your comment, "Either people have the hearts, minds, and core values to behave ethically, or they don't." says it all in my opinion. Thanks for sharing project management knowledge that must be experienced and cannot easily be taught in books. There are good lessons and good advice in this piece. I just wish they could be put into a virtual reality simulation that students could see. Thanks.

  • Valerie F. Leonard says:

    May 3, 2020 12:21 am

    You're quite welcome, Patrice! Thank you for your kind words. You made my day. I wish you the best of luck in your future collaborations.

  • Patrice Ziegler says:

    May 1, 2020 11:25 am

    "Either people have the hearts, minds, and core values to behave ethically, or they don't. Legal documents don't change the essence of who we are."

    This spoke to me and gave me more insight on how to handle future projects. Thank you so much for this article!