Written by: Barbara King, 2018
Collaboration Best Practices from Watersheds Canada’s Experience
In working in the environmental sector, especially where there are so many different groups, agencies, and organizations working on various issues, collaboration is critical to finding solutions to big picture problems that are currently taking place in our country. Working in collaboration has many benefits but also poses some challenges. The National Survey of Nonprofit and Voluntary Organizations by Imagine Canada notes that it’s estimated that the sector encompasses over 180,000 organizations that differ in their mission, organizational structure, size, and resources. Organizations with revenues in excess of $10 million constitute only 1 % of all non-profit organizations that exist in Canada but receive 59 % of total revenues and employ 46 % of the staff. This demonstrates significant differences in organizational structure, staff, and resources between large and small organizations which can pose significant challenges in working collaboratively.
For this reason, as a small charity with a budget of approximately $500,000, Watersheds Canada relies on collaboration for all of our work. We have found that through strategic partnerships that are mutually beneficial, we can accomplish many additional outcomes that would not otherwise be possible. We have received many benefits from our collaborative work, most importantly, relationships in this sector as a credible and dependable organization that works to protect Canada’s lakes and rivers.
If you are thinking about collaboration, I would like to share some of my thoughts on what key considerations should be in place for a collaboration to be successful:
- Make sure you have a comprehensive collaborative agreement in place.
Create a collaborative agreement that defines how you will work together. This is by far the most important task that needs to take place before a project begins. You will likely spend many hours thinking of all the ‘what -if’s’ and will be extremely helpful in establishing roles and responsibilities based on each organizations capacity and expertise. Discussions should be centred around things like:
- Who is going to manage the budget?
- Who is going to be the lead organization for grant applications?
- How will you manage day-to-day activities?
- Who is going to make connections with new partners?
- How do you make budget allocations and other resources?
- Who oversees marketing and communications?
- What happens if there is a dispute or breach of contract?
These conversations have been critical to our successful collaborations and when we skipped this process, we usually end up with miscommunications along the way.
- Find someone you can trust and establish a good working relationship.
Establishing good personal relationship between organizations has been key for us in successfully delivering collaborative programs. You need to genuinely like each other and have a good, honest, relationships. We have found that communications can sometimes be challenging between two or more organizations and it is important for us to have regular in person meetings as well as appropriate planning and follow-up to help avoid miscommunications. We have learned the hard way that after every decision is made in an in person meeting or phone meeting, to follow-up with an email confirming what was decided to ensure that everyone was on the same page. This has been critical in so many cases as we all forget what was said from one meeting to another.
- Make sure you agree that mistakes will happen and you will learn together and move forward when they do.
I think it is extremely important to acknowledge that it is okay to make mistakes and figure things out by adjusting along the way. No one is perfect and you will make mistakes. You need to be able to acknowledge your mistakes and learn from them. We have had many meetings where we said…”well that didn’t quite work”… or “we didn’t communicate well on that issue” or “I am sorry, I made a mistake” etc. When you made a tactical error, you need to figure out where you went wrong, apologize and then adjust your approach and deal with the issues that arose from your mistake.