The Dark Side of Collaboration
Collaboration in the nonprofit sector is taken for granted as a virtue, as a behavior to aspire to. We like to think of ourselves as team players, our organizations (and our motivations) as altruistic, as being in it for the common good. But let’s be honest. We usually don’t want to collaborate, and often don’t like to. Collaboration is hard. Not only that, but — as author and strategist Nilofer Merchant has pointed out — collaboration is dangerous.
This “dark side” of collaboration is the focus in Merchant’s “Eight Dangers of Collaboration” (Harvard Business Review, December 2011), which makes the compelling case that because collaboration involves ceding or sharing power (or at least wielding it differently), it’s inherently disruptive — and, from a certain perspective, dangerous. Although she does not present them in this way, her eight dangers seem to cluster around two common themes: one having to do with individual and/or organizational egos, and the other relating to impatience with process. The commentary below builds on Merchant’s ideas while adding our own observations about how they play out among nonprofits.
The Problem of Ego
Nonprofits operate in an inherently competitive environment, their whole business model dependent upon vying with others for limited dollars, whether from dwindling public funding streams, foundations, or increasingly discerning individual donors. To survive, let alone thrive, they have had to convince key stakeholders that their way is the right way. They are also highly motivated by the desire to offer the highest quality programs and services and to feel confident that they are doing so. To open oneself up to collaboration is to in some way admit that you don’t have all the answers, that you need help, that your solution may not be the best one. This is not only hard on an organization’s ego, but nonprofit leaders may internalize this on an individual level, fearing that pursuing a collaboration is a sign of their own leadership failure.
Additionally, once organizational leaders step up to the collaboration table, they are no longer the only leader, but a leader among leaders — an equal among peers. This is a different and perhaps unfamiliar or uncomfortable role. Collaboration demands that nonprofit leaders at times be an expert and at times be a learner, and openness to the latter requires a certain vulnerability.
Further, when it comes to sharing information, which is a foundation of collaboration, transparency is key. In a day and age when information is power, information sharing can be as risky for organizations as it can be transformative to their work. Nonprofits are under increasing pressure to share data, no more so than when they must be honest with potential partners about what they bring to the table, whether it be their limitations or weaknesses or excess capacity that might be leveraged to better use.
Finally, collaboration means that partners must share not only the credit for a job well done but also the blame for failure. Shared accountability means all partners rise or fall together, relying on one another for their success in achieving collaborative goals. This ownership of results can be either a reputational risk, or a boon.
The Problem with Process
If there’s one thing we’ve learned from working with countless nonprofit partnerships over the years, it’s that collaboration takes time. The process of collaboration often involves more talking than doing, which can be highly frustrating for action-oriented nonprofit leaders as well as results-focused funders. At its core, collaboration is about joint problem-solving, which requires a “form, storm, norm, perform” kind of process of coming together, understanding the issue, and surfacing solutions before selecting and turning them into action. Moreover, this process is rarely linear, often encountering a “groan zone” along the way between defining the problem in all its complexity and agreeing on a solution. It requires patience and perseverance.
In the midst of this process, many nonprofits are hampered by an aversion to conflict. In the effort to “make nice” they may fall short of making real decisions. As uncomfortable as it may be to risk fighting, it can also be frustrating to play along with a feel-good process that doesn’t seem to result in action.
Finally, as we already noted, this work takes time — and most nonprofits have plenty of work to do without taking on a collaboration that may or may not take their work where it needs to go. Nonprofits and their leaders are already typically overextended, and engaging in collaboration poses a very real risk to their core activities and organizational priorities just as much as it has the potential to advance them.
These “dangers” of collaboration constitute a dark side that we sometimes don’t want to admit to, that there are in fact serious hurdles when nonprofits seek to join together in the spirit of partnership. Often, joint focus on a shared mission will help overcome them. But we should not pretend that these very real obstacles don’t exist. After all, take it from Yoda: “Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”