The Trouble with Collaboration
By Craig Nash
“The Texas Hunger Initiative is a capacity-building collaborative organization… “
So begins the official description of what my organization does. Like most first words of a mission statement, it is full of all the pretty phrases, designed to make you feel good about what is coming next. And when it works, it does create positive energy, but “collaboration” can be one of the most difficult tricks to pull off in the non-profit world. And as we all know, you can delete “non-profit” from the previous sentence and it functions just as well.
Working together isn’t something we are hardwired to do. A visit to the nearest playground right before naptime will provide sufficient evidence of this fact. But by the end of adolescence and the beginning of adulthood, we begin to understand, whether by intuition or inculcation, that it is something we should do– If for no other reason than to get a “Works well with others” stamp beside our name.
Having spent some of my time in ministry, and much (read: all) of my life in churches, the inability for faith communities to collaborate with each other is an oft-stated frustration of many, both inside and outside of congregations. “Why can’t we all just work together” is the refrain that has sparked numerous joint fellowship-dinners and worship services, each of which fizzle out once the churches actually start talking about working on a project together. Now that I’ve been around non-profits and other businesses for a short amount of time, I am seeing that it is not a phenomenon exclusive to churches.
Why is collaboration so difficult?
I think a story I heard recently may hold the clue. (I’m being especially vague in the telling to protect the identities of all parties involved.)
An employee of a business and her boss were in a meeting. The agenda was for both of them to dream and talk about what her future in the organization might look like. The boss asked her, “If you could do anything within our business, what would it be?” She thought about it for a while and then laid out her “Dream Scenario” for her next few years within the organization. The boss thought about it for a few moments, then responded with, “I’m going to have to say ‘no.’ The things you have described are not in my professional best interest.” It should go without saying that the relationship between the employee and this organization was not long for this world.
The moral of this story isn’t that two parties can’t cooperate unless they are willing to lay aside some of their individual personal interests for the good of the partnership. (Though that is a good moral, it’s not the moral of MY TELLING of this story.) This scenario could have gone better, but I don’t think what happened here is the worst example of collaboration, because it has the one element that often causes collaborative partnerships to fizzle out. You guessed it—Honesty. The boss had no problem laying all his personal goals and ambitions on the table, as well as his unwillingness to budge with regards to what his employee wanted to happen.
I suppose this isn’t necessarily a story about the value of collaboration, but rather about the value of not wasting each other’s time if collaboration isn’t possible. It takes a little bit of a dance to pull solid collaboration off, with one party figuring out when to lead and when to follow, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with saying “You know, I don’t want to dance.” In fact, if you don’t want to dance, saying so is preferable to all the other linguistic gymnastics many often go through in an attempt to be nice.
Luckily, when it comes to partnering together to alleviate food insecurity in Waco, there are a number of organizations that ARE willing to dance the dance.
I’ve been charged with a clear mission: To drastically increase the amount of students in the Heart of Texas Region who are participating in child nutrition programs offered through the Texas Department of Agriculture, such as School Breakfast, After School and Summer meals. The Texas Hunger Initiative believes this is one of the most efficient and effective tools in solving the problem of childhood hunger. It’s not the only efficient and effective tool, though. Other organizations like Pack-of-Hope, Caritas and local churches have other “clear missions” centered on other tools. We have each found ways to “dance,” knowing that a rising tide lifts all ships.
The word “collaboration” is a lot more fun to say than it is to do. There is sweat involved. And differing opinions about “best practices,” not to mention egos and reputations at stake. I am thankful to live in a community working hard trying to figure it out.
Craig Nash has lived in Waco since 2000. Since then he has worked at Baylor, been a seminary student, managed a hotel restaurant, been the “Barnes and Noble guy,” pastored a church and once again works for Baylor through the Texas Hunger Initiative. He lives with his dog Jane, religiously re-watches the same 4 series on Netflix over and over again, and considers himself an amateur country music historian.
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