What is Collaboration?
Collaboration is a mutually beneficial and well-defined relationship entered into by two or more organizations to achieve results they are more likely to achieve together than alone.1
Collaboration is commonly interchanged with terms such as “networking,” “cooperation,” and “coordination,” so there is sometimes confusion around the true meaning of collaboration. Because of the ambiguity connected to each of these terms, people think that anytime they are working together, they are collaborating. Working together happens in varying levels and knowing your goal will determine whether you need to network, cooperate, coordinate, or collaborate. Cooperation, coordination, and collaboration alliances are discussed in more detail in a following section. A definition of each of these terms is provided here to help you differentiate between collaboration and the other terms.
Networking is exchanging information for mutual benefit.2
Cooperation is a shorter term, informal relationship for sharing information only. Goals, resources and structures are separate.3
Coordination is a longer term effort around a project or task, with some planning and division of roles. Some resources, rewards, and risks are shared.4
As we begin to think about collaborating, we first need to take a look at the two types of collaborations and stages of collaboration.
Collaborations typically fall into one of two categories - a collaborative to integrate services or a collaborative to resolve complex issues.
Collaborative to Integrate Services: describes efforts to integrate services in social services, arts, health care, economic development, housing, or education. You may have heard of terms such as “wrap-around service delivery” or “unified case management” in the description of service integration.
Example: 2-1-1, the telephone information phone line, is a result of an integrated service collaborative first implemented by the United Way of Metropolitan Atlanta, and now in collaboration with United Way of America and information and referral agencies everyone has access. 2-1-1 is a national number that gives callers free access to human services, health information, or callers may seek help in a crisis. The goal of 2-1-1 is to ensure that citizens are able to call one place for help.
Collaborative to Resolve Complex Issues: is focused on multiple approaches that address community issues that cannot be achieved without many changes spanning multiple systems.
Example: “Come on Back” is an excellent example of a collaborative to address complex issues. Based in Utica, New York, this after-school program targeted students with high absenteeism rates. The program applied positive youth development to reconnect students to school and improve academic performance. Youth and Family Connections (a community group) partnered with the local high school to develop an after-school program that offered academic activities, career planning, and recreational activities. The Youth and Family Connections program provided recreational space and also were able to connect students to other community programs, broadening their opportunities. The school provided teachers and counselors to assist with educational activities, which help students to reconnect with their school.5
In addition to the two types of a collaborative, four distinct stages of collaboration have been identified. The following overview of the four stages of collaboration has been included to help you understand how collaborations evolve and develop:
Stage 1: Envision Results by Working Individual-to-Individual
Stage 2: Empower Ourselves by Working Individual-to-Organizations
Stage 3: Ensure Success by Working Organization-to-Organization
Stage 4: Provide Continuity by Working Collaboration-to-Community
Whether your collaboration is just beginning or you have been in a collaborative partnership for a while, working through the stages will help your collaborative be more responsive and more productive. It is important to remember that collaboration is challenging and time consuming, so keep at it.