When Collaborations Fail, The Impact is Not Neutral

There remains a pervasive belief that people and organizations know how to engage in cross-sector collaborations.  And earlier this year, I worked on a project that provided further measurable evidence that this pervasive belief is wrong.

The context for this work was that I participated on an evaluation team for a large, multi-site initiative that was funded by a philanthropic foundation.  While I would not call myself an evaluator, I’ve co-designed and managed a lot of evaluations over the years, and I do love working with clients to clarify their goals and hypotheses, and build a culture and process of real-time learning to inform and improve strategy (emergent learning).

However, this project was a bit different. The grant program had concluded, and one of many things that the grantees had been required to do by their funder was to build a cross-sector collaboration.  Why? It was never articulated during the course of the program, and given its goal, it was unclear why it was needed.  What was the funder’s definition of the a cross-sector collaboration? They didn’t have one.  Was there technical assistance provided for the grantees to support the development of their cross-sector collaborations? Nope.  Had grantees’ capacity for cross-sector collaboration been assessed as part of the selection process?  No.

I opted to participate because while I expected the results to be weak, I also thought there might an opportunity to influence the funder’s work for the future. 

What I found was worse than weak, a full 54% of the sites that I assessed (by matrixing available data to indicators of the 4 Questions to Ask & Answer When Engaging in Cross-Sector Collaboration) demonstrated no change or were only able to articulate a clear goal for their work together.  More than half of the funded sites failed to figure out how to get the “right” individuals and organizations involved, build processes and practices for working together, and develop trust and learn together toward achieving their goals.

My hypothesis is that funders often believe the impact of failed investments is neutral. But, between my work in the field, my previous research and technical assistance experiences, and the work on this project which involved many hours of digging deeply into the available data for each site, I believe there is a growing body of evidence that when collaborations fail, the impact is not neutral for two reasons.

Detail of Street Art, Bushwick Collective, Brooklyn, NY

Reason #1: There is significant opportunity cost to individuals, organizations, communities, and funders for failed cross-sector collaborations. 

In recent years, there has been a proliferation of cross-sector “tables” focused on a range of topics in many communities. This reality has been noted by some practitioners as an opportunity (if the collaborations can be leveraged and coordinated) and others as a limitation (if the ecosystem is saturated or fragmented). 

Sometimes, when an organization or individual is involved in one collaboration, they have no or diminished capacity to contribute to other efforts. And if the effort they chose to participate in does not demonstrate any progress toward building a cross-sector collaboration in support of its goals, then they exit the experience having wasted time, energy, and resources as well as missing opportunities to contribute to efforts that might be making more progress on the issues they care about.  Additionally, when institutions and individuals engage in ineffective collaborations, it has the potential to diminish their willingness to participate in any collaborations in the future.

There is an opportunity cost for failed cross-sector collaborations --  to the communities, institutions, and individuals as well as the Funders who could have been directing resources to build a team’s capacity to do the work effectively in the future or to support the work of a community already prepared to make progress.


Detail of Street Art, Bushwick Collective, Brooklyn, NY

Reason #2: Failed collaborations can erode trust among leaders and institutions who need to work together. 

Opportunity cost is one thing, but there was also evidence of something more insidious that popped up in the interview and survey data from two of the sites I assessed as part of the philanthropic foundation’s grant program. 

In two communities, there was evidence that participation in the failed cross-sector collaboration diminished trust among stakeholders, which was having spill over effects for their communities and institutions and diminished their willingness to work together or participate in collaborations in the future.  While the team dynamics were different in each site, at the root of both team’s challenges were issues of power.  When asked about the state of the collaboration, one of the more diplomatic interviewees said, “I think we’re all looking at each other differently than we did before this project started, because this was so intense, I think we’re much more careful, and tend to tiptoe around each other a little bit more.”  

There is often an assumption that people know how to participate in cross-sector collaborations.  However, there is mounting evidence that points to that assumption being wrong. Collaboration is a practice that can be developed, and there are processes that can be learned and adapted, but working outside of the traditional structures of authority and accountability provided by organizations is radical work and work that needs to be entered into and supported intentionally.  If it is not, it can diminish an individual’s, organization’s, and community’s capacity and willingness to collaborate to solve problems, or worse, stir up active antagonisms in communities without providing a mechanism to work through them together.

Have you participated in a cross-sector collaboration that has failed?  What impact did it have on you and your colleagues? Your organization?  Your community?  Share your insights in the comments or tweet them at me using #optimisticanthro.