Section 15: Collaboration: Networks and Coalitions

The mission of a CIL involves social change—literally transforming your community. That’s a huge task for one organization to accomplish alone. The often-quoted African proverb reminds us, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”

You can go farther and accomplish more when you collaborate with organizations espousing similar goals and values—including those that are not disability focused—sharing information, resources, and decision-making in order to achieve a common goal. Reaching out to other organizations and combining efforts will build your CIL’s presence, connections, and influence and enhance your ability to impact internal objectives (such as resource development, diversity, inclusion, and cultural humility) as well as external objectives (such as educating service providers and decision-makers, expanding community options for people with disabilities).

Successful collaboration does not happen by accident. Effective collaboration requires work and commitment. A study of collaborations involving state departments and private social services agencies in Ohio[1] identified seven factors (adapted below) that contribute to a working collaboration:

  1. Commitment involves sharing goals and visions, developing a high level of trust between partners, and mutual responsibility for common goals.
    • Make clear—to yourself and your partners—those issues that are of highest importance and cannot be compromised.
    • Develop a way to compromise on other differences, even important ones.
    • Focus on the goals and potential positive outcomes. 
  2. Communication is often identified by nonprofits as the most important element of collaboration.
    • Create opportunities for frequent communication—meetings, conference calls, emails, updates, etc.
    • Build personal connections and relationships.
  3. Strong Leadership from Key Decision Makers – The success or failure of collaboration depends on the commitment of key decision makers who truly represent the collaborating agencies.
    • Involve someone who truly understands the agency’s position and priorities.
    • Involve someone with enough authority to make decisions on behalf of the agency.
  4. Understanding the Culture of Collaborating Agencies, including language, values or priorities, ways of doing business, and definitions of collaboration.
    • Take time to learn and understand each collaborating agency’s mission, priorities, and technical language (job shadowing, presentations, etc.).
    • Make sure definitions of what may appear to be common terms are understood by collaborative agencies—terms may have both positive and negative connotations (empowerment, employment, consumer, etc.).
    • Review pertinent laws and regulations prior to the collaborative efforts, to ensure the collaborative process does not inadvertently violate any laws or regulations. Find ways to understand the regulatory environment surrounding an issue (legislative change, waivers, etc.).
  5. Providing Adequate Resources for Collaboration. Funders encourage nonprofits to collaborate but rarely consider or cover the costs involved. Before committing to a collaborative project, make sure that your CIL can afford to do so in terms of staff, time, and other resources.
    • Provide time and additional resources for those engaging in collaboration.
    • Look for additional funding sources to avoid the pitfalls.
    • Openly and honestly discuss workloads, the needs of supporting the team, and creative ways to address those needs.
  6. Minimizing Turf Issues. These are likely to occur and cannot be ignored. Develop a plan to address turf issues and conflict as they occur.
    • Provide staff with a positive view of the collaboration by highlighting the potential positive outcomes of collaboration.  Disseminate examples of positive outcomes.
    • Implement a system of rewards for those participating in the collaboration.
    • Engage in serious preplanning to anticipate and minimize potential turf issues.
  7. Engaging in Serious Preplanning
    • Form a steering committee to identify potential problems, key issues, and similarities/differences between the cultures of participating agencies.
    • Clearly articulate the developing goals and anticipated outcomes of the collaboration.

Johnson, et al. (2003), noted that when members of a collaborative group viewed the other agencies through an organizational culture lens, they were less likely to characterize their rules, values, structures, and communication patterns as “wrong.”  You are more likely to be able to influence those values and structures as a friend and collaborator than as an enemy. Be clear about what you cannot compromise and focus on the goal. Your CIL can broaden the perspective of organizations that focus on a single disability by demonstrating Independent Living’s cross-disability orientation and emphasizing common ground. But don’t limit your networks and partnerships to other disability organizations. CILs need partnerships with businesses, housing developers, transportation providers, colleges/universities, and schools to expand opportunities and options for people with disabilities. Goals of social justice and civil rights organizations often overlap with the goals of CILs, and we can work together to address inequalities and systemic discrimination.

Resources for a Deeper Dive

[1] Johnson, L., Zorn, D., Tam, B. K. Y., Lamontagne, M. & Johnson, S. (2003). Stakeholders' Views of Factors That Impact Successful Interagency Collaboration. Exceptional Children, 69(2).