Community-based organizations can have a greater impact on their issues by joining forces and building collaborations. Collaborations are increasingly recognized and used as mechanisms for service coordination, problem-solving, advocacy and social change.† Collaborations are organizations of independent organizations which engage in collective activity to accomplish specific projects or to influence external institutions while maintaining their own autonomy.


The recent proliferation of collaborations reflects the reality that organizations in the 1990s must function with increasing sophistication and interdependency in order to be effective.† Local issues usually represent larger patterns; social and economic problems affecting individuals and communities are often intertwined and compounded; and funding for advocacy and direct services is increasingly being allocated to entire neighborhoods or program consortia rather than individual agencies.


The sheer number of organizations and funding streams handling different issues demands new strategies for advocacy, service delivery and information sharing.† Complex, overlapping issues and constituencies require connections between diverse organizations and multiple, rather than single approaches to problem-solving.† Organizations recognize that they must coordinate and cooperate with each other in order to be effective, address service gaps, avoid duplication, and ensure their own survival.† In the political arena, collaborations have become the locus of social movement activity -- as vehicles that can incorporate the multiplicity of players and perspectives.† While individual groups can organize to get a bigger piece of the pie, collaborations can expand the pie for everyone.


Collaborations are most useful when there are a proliferation of different organizations operating in a field or organizing on the same issue -- particularly when those organizations display differences in amounts of power and effectiveness.†† Collaborations tend to form under certain conditions: when organizations want to achieve a bigger impact on an issue than they could by working alone, when they want to work on an issue but do not want to allocate a lot of their resources to it, when they seek protection or less visibility,† or when they need a more diverse base in order to win.


Collaborations unite diverse actors and organizations in a geographical or functional community without forcing people to feel like "one big happy family" or to expand their own organization beyond its natural boundaries.† Structured correctly, collaborations are open and egalitarian, and appeal to and involve many different stakeholders -- individuals, grassroots groups, religious organizations, academic institutions, business, government, labor, community-based organizations, and others. They are also viable multi-cultural efforts integrating minority and majority groups, new immigrants and more settled residents, traditionally powerless groups and those more powerful.


Collaborations have accomplished impressive outcomes which are virtually impossible for organizations to achieve singly. They have been found to be highly effective in addressing a broad range of issues including education reform, child welfare, housing justice, economic development, health care,† environmental protection, , women's rights, immigration policy, racism, domestic violence and more. Such collaborations have developed and strengthened social services, changed policies, introduced or defeated legislation, produced material gains through the welfare system, created new funding streams for emerging problems, bolstered local economies, and significantly changed public awareness about critical social issues.





Any organization today operates in a field with others who share its community location, target population, issue, or funding source.† Organizations can increase their effectiveness by recognizing and maximizing these connections. Collaborations provide a channel for ongoing communication and coordination among† service providers, funders, researchers, social change allies and targets, government agencies and elected officials.† Organizations can develop a greater understanding of client and community needs and existing resources by seeing the whole picture.† Collaborations also engender an increased sense of the larger spheres in which organizations operate and give them access to key allies, players and targets they might not meet otherwise. Networks, exposure to new ideas and mentoring are among the secondary benefits of regular intergroup involvement.


Collaborations are often preferred vehicles for intergroup action because they preserve the autonomy of member organizations while providing the necessary structure for unified effort.† Enabling people to link special interests,† share information and diverse expertise, collaborations permit organizations to clarify their differences, and incorporate various skills, levels of experience and roles for participation.† They allow groups who are at different stages of their own internal development to have an equal say.


Tangible benefits also accrue from collaboration. Organizations can continue to focus on what they do best and preserve their own resources while relying on others for related tasks and expertise. Moreover, by sharing their own knowledge and experiences organizations increase their credibility and visibility.† Through collaborations, organizations can also acquire power, information, publicity, new perspectives, contacts, resources, and access to other constituencies.† Collaborations enable organizations, without straying from their mission, to enter creative new ventures and pilot projects with other groups, diversify projects, membership and constituencies.†





Government and private funders recognize the need for collaboration to minimize duplication and increase coordination among service providers with shared target populations. Funders have also formed their own collaborations to focus on certain issues or geographic areas they support in an effort to coordinate and evaluate the collective impact of their grants.†


Collaborations encourage a view of families and communities that is holistic and comprehensive.† Knowledge of target populations and areas is amplified by information-sharing through collaborations of activists, neighborhood residents, service providers, researchers and evaluators. Families are better helped by greater service coordination or case management at the provider level than by a panoply of services from different providers, each operating in ignorance of the others, developing fragmented treatment plans for problems which are really indivisible, and multiplying paperwork and bureaucracy.† Similarly, underserved communities require many different supports for stabilization and revitalization. Collaborations can be vehicles for communities to engage in comprehensive planning and development efforts that integrate different resources, assets and perspectives.† They can help providers and consumers identify and advocate for needed services and programs, and result in improved material conditions and resources.





The temporality, mutability and flexibility of coalitions has made them vehicles for social change activists and human services since the 1960ís.† Through such collaborations social action organizations with restricted agendas can link their work to broad scale mobilization efforts. Coalitions and† collaborations allow groups to pursue bigger targets on a larger scale, address power inequities, shape public ideology, and build solutions to complex problems together. Bridging differences, collaborations can help diverse groups to develop a common language and ideology with which to shape a collective vision for social change.† They enable groups to mobilize quickly in case of† community emergencies† which require collective response.† Such beginnings often lead to lasting coalitions to ensure that external targets remain accountable.† By using collaborations to engage in political advocacy, organizations share the risks, gain some measure of protection and take a stand without necessarily being publicly identified. Collaborations can advance the social change agendas of individual organizations, by mobilizing action and support, attracting resources and visibility for issues.


Gaining experience in building collaborations brings leadership development to another level, analogous to the difference between building a family and being an active part of the community.† Through collaborations people learn to negotiate a variety of resources and to shape collective plans for bigger arenas and multiple issues.† Participants develop complex skills that deal with the interface between their own organization and other groups: mediating, bargaining, coordinating disparate components, consensus decision-making, multi-level communication.† They also acquire an ability to handle simultaneously several types and levels of mobilization: moving on an issue while keeping the collaboration together and remaining accountable to the broad base represented by its member organizations.





The increased use of collaborations by a wide variety of practitioners for the purposes of organizational development, service coordination and expansion, and political action demonstrates the relevance of this form for organizational effectiveness.†† Knowledge and experience in building collaborations is increasingly necessary for professional growth, agency survival, program development and organizational credibility. Collaborations are where the action is now politically and economically. With scarce resources for organizing, increased technology for networking, and greater efficiency through coordination, we will be seeing more collaborations.† In addition to being a means of accomplishing specific goals, long-term collaborations can become models of interorganizational cooperation and understanding.† These models embody a collective vision of justice and equality, and create a new landscape for organizing, and organizational and community development.

[1] This article has been excerpted from one that was published in Michael Austin and Jane Lowe, Editors, (1994). Controversial Issues in Communities and Organizations.†† Boston: Allyn and Bacon Publishers.