We’re always collaborating. But how can we make it more effective?

Jun 9, 2016 by Monalisa Salib Comments (8)

This blog is the fourth in an ongoing series exploring the components of USAID's CLA FrameworkHere is the first blog on organizational culture, the second on effective learning, and the third on the resources necessary for CLA to take hold.

I know – your eyes have already glazed over. It’s the component that people tend to skip over and the one that doesn’t make an official appearance in USAID’s Program Cycle, though it underlies how we all carry out our work. And when talking to others about collaboration, I get the sense that everyone is thinking, “well, yeah, duh.”

But despite what may seem common sense, we still find ourselves (and can hear our colleagues and partners telling us about) working in silos, not co-creating enough with those most affected by our development assistance, and avoiding those who may be critical to our efforts but difficult to work with.

What Does Effective Collaboration Throughout the Program Cycle Look Like?

I think one of the reasons we have this “well, duh” reaction to collaboration is that we collaborate all the time. We’re constantly in meetings, talking to colleagues, out in the field, or meeting with other organizations, so it doesn’t seem like something we need to necessarily do more of or improve upon. If anything, we may need to collaborate less to get some actual work done.

For this exact reason, within the CLA framework, our aim is not to get USAID missions to collaborate more often with more organizations or stakeholders. Rather, we encourage thinking more strategically about collaboration – who should we be collaborating with, why, and what form should collaboration take? Practically speaking, with limited time and resources, we cannot collaborate with all internal and external stakeholders. We must make choices about who is most essential and what form collaboration should take with each stakeholder. Therefore, effective collaboration happens when we systematically and intentionally:

  • Identify internal and external stakeholders who could have the greatest impact on our planning and implementation
  • Make decisions about what form collaboration should take with these stakeholders
  • Collaborate effectively with identified stakeholders based on decisions reached and in an ongoing fashion.

How Can We Improve Collaboration Throughout the Program Cycle?

Be Strategic: Yes, I may be guilty of repeating myself, but the first step is to identify key stakeholders through some type of stakeholder analysis process, such as collaboration mapping or net mapping. All forms of collaboration can be valid—basic information exchange, consultation, coordination, partnership, and co-creation—depending on what we are trying to accomplish, who our stakeholders are, and their expectations and needs. These tools can help teams determine who is most critical to achieving objectives (or perhaps even determining what those objectives should be) and how to engage them along that collaboration spectrum.

Remember that internal collaboration also requires strategic thinking, even if we don't use a stakeholder analysis tool to the same level of formality we would for external stakeholders.

Reset Relationships between Donors and Implementing Partners: The nature of collaboration between donors and implementing partners is a crucial success factor for any activity or project. Intervention outcomes can improve greatly if that collaboration is founded on mutual respect—viewing one another as knowledge peers—and a willingness to jointly problem-solve. Evaluating the relationship between the donor and implementing partner and resetting that relationship, if necessary, are essential steps for improving how we collaborate and ultimately deliver assistance.

Facilitate, Rather than Create, Development: Equally important is the nature of collaboration with the communities, local governments, local organizations, and individuals we support through our interventions. This means taking a facilitative approach—one that focuses on indirect interventions at strategic points within a system—to collaborate with these key stakeholders. Such an approach is common to market systems/value chain activities; in others, using community-driven, participatory approaches throughout the Program Cycle will increase local ownership and sustainability of results.

Examples of Effective Collaboration in Action

There are no doubt countless examples of effective collaboration in action. Some of my personal favorites that emphasize a strategic approach that values quality over quantity include:

We encourage you to share your tips for more effective collaboration with USAID and other partners, and examples of effective collaboration in action here in the comment section. What are some examples of successful (or unsuccessful) collaboration in your work?

Filed Under: CLA in Action

COMMENTS (8)

Don Drach wrote:

Friends of Liberia www.fol.org is engaged in a successful partnership with HIPPY-International and the WE-CARE Foundation in Monrovia to pilot an evidence-based family literacy program in Liberia.  We will complete year one of the pilot in August and based on evaluation results will expand.

The initiative is possible only because of the collaboration among FOL, HIPPY-International (program content) and WE-CARE (implementing partner in Liberia).

More info:  www.fol.org/literacy-initiative  or contact Don Drach at dondrach@gmail.com

posted 9 months ago

Hi Don, thanks for sharing your example! What makes this collaboration an effective one in your opinion? is there a 'special sauce' so to speak?

posted 9 months ago
Don Drach wrote:

Hi Monalisa

Not sure about a special sauce, but I think one factor is that each of the three partners brings something unique to the partnership.  Just as a stool wouldn't stand without three legs, the Family Literacy Initiative wouldn't stand without all three partners.  Friends of Liberia was the partner that conceived the project (and for the first year is responsible for securing funding), HIPPY-Int'l provided the program content, and WE-CARE Foundation implements the program on the ground.  All three groups are highly respected and hard-working. We also share a common understanding that none of us could do this alone....we need each other to succeed.

It also helps that we are all small organizations with clear-cut missions and goals.  In my opinion, many of the large aid organizations - national and multi-national - are too large and a bit too removed from what's happening on the ground to be as effective as they otherwise could be.

posted 9 months ago

Yes, we are always collaborating in development assistance. There are three “collaboration-related” questions I ask myself when working in global health. First, Am I planning my project activities in a way that they complement what others are doing and that they strengthen the country's health system? I ensure my project plans are developed based on sound information of what others are doing and the country’s health policy and plans. I also share my plans with other stakeholders and ensure my plans are part of the MOH’s annual health plan.  It is not enough to do good global health work but it is essential that what we do is sustained by the country's health system and is made part of its operating procedures. For instance, when working to improve the community-based management of acute malnutrition in a country, projects must strive to plan activities that improve the capacity of the MOH to implement its nutrition program and services and coordinate our plans with the plans of other donors also working in nutrition. In this way, we ensure that our work achieves the desired impact. Next, I ask myself if what we are doing is being reported to the country's information and surveillance system and how best to do it in timely and efficient manner. Being effective is good but we must also be accountable and demonstrate we improve the country's ability of tracking all that is done to improve its health outcomes. And third, I ask myself if what we are doing is communicated effectively to all stakeholders. In this way, I ensure effective coordination in implementation to avoid duplication of efforts or giving conflicting messages and deliver sustainable results through effective collaboration. The three questions and the three "C"s , that is, communication, coordination and collaboration work well through effective planning and execution of project activities.

posted 9 months ago

Hi Elvira, this is a great example of operationalizing some important aspects of collaboration that I think has applicability well beyond global health. Thanks for sharing!

posted 9 months ago

Thanks for your feedback. I am happy my work was helpful to you. Best wishes!

posted 9 months ago

Collaboration is a topic that beneficiaries of aid or technical assistance are always eager to discuss. People in organizations and institutions want and expect bigger roles in assistance efforts that are intended to improve the performance of their organizations. But they want “real” rather than rhetorical collaboration or participation, which in most cases is nothing more than the validation of strategies or decisions that have already been made by projects or the use of tools and approaches that may not fit or relate to the organization’s top capacity building challenges and priorities.

A couple of years ago, in our work with 13 CSOs implementing HIV/AIDS and OVC programs in Malawi, one important aspect that characterized our collaboration with them was recognizing each of them as a legitimate partner, allowing them to play active roles in the entire project cycle, expanding their space to manage, influence and provide meaningful inputs at every stage: from identifying capacity building needs, determining priorities and timelines, mobilizing and aligning stakeholders, to developing and finalizing the final products. When local organizations experience change and improved organizational processes and systems in which they have a voice, and they feel that they contributed to the creation of the solutions being implemented, they are more likely to own, manage and sustain that change.

In other words, it's hard for organizations or even countries to own and sustain what they did not create, and that can only come about through genuine collaboration.

posted 9 months ago

Hi Ummaro, I couldn't agree more. We have an informal scale in our mind when thinking about collaboration - from information gathering --> to consultation --> coordination --> partnership --> co-creation. With local actors in partiucular, we need to move more and more towards co-creation in order to achieve sustainability. 

posted 9 months ago