Collaboration for community change

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Collaboration for Community Change: how to make it happen

It’s now broadly accepted across the NGO, government, philanthropy and business sectors, that complex social issues can’t be tackled effectively by single organisations or individuals.

Experience has shown we need to work together, across sectors and with communities, to create broad and lasting social change.

The good news is that more and more of us in the NFP sector are starting to do this. But there’s no doubt, collaboration is not easy, and it’s often misunderstood. Collaboration is not ‘business as usual’.

In this article we share learnings from our collaborative work across Australia to help you dodge some of the pitfalls. But first…

What is collaboration, really?

ARACY outlines the difference between cooperation, coordination and collaboration well in Table 1, here.

Let’s clear up some of the common misconceptions and barriers to effective collaboration:

Belief Mitigation
Collaboration, as an idea, appeals to everyone, but not everyone understands what it means or what it requires.


Explain what collaboration is and involves before you start, including that:

·       You’re deviating from ‘business as usual’ to progress a shared goal

·       All collaborators will have different but complementary roles


Mistaking collaboration for:

·       coordination

·       partnership

·       talking to others about what you do

·       sharing information

·       applying for joint funding

·       others changing their behaviour


·       Provide examples

·       Put time and effort into building and maintaining relationships, beyond formal agreements on paper

·       Use collaborative principles from the very beginning – define issues together, write the vision together etc


Collaboration replaces the need for governance and processes


·       Collaboration must have adaptive, agile systems, community leadership, and shared responsibility for reaching a common goal

·       Provide tools like factsheets about collaboration and templates for developing common goals, workshop facilitation techniques and examples of governance arrangements from other initiatives


People underestimating the time, ‘messiness’ and maturity required


·       Be realistic on time required, given the size of the issue, community or collaboration group – for Collective Impact it’s reasonable to spend 2-3 years researching, engaging community, and building governance and processes before really hitting the implementation accelerator.

·       Engage a neutral ‘backbone’ facilitating organisation or team that demonstrates the above


We’ve come to understand there are key ingredients underpinning effective collaborations

Check these off before you begin.

Develop an understanding of the issue before deciding who to collaborate with

  • Start local – identify the ‘issue’ through Community Conversations to build an understanding of the concerns, strengths and aspirations of the affected community, in their eyes. This also lays the foundation to build momentum for change ‘from the ground up’.
  • Only then, find your collaborators – identify people who may be willing and are clear on their motivation for collaborating, including local stakeholders, and develop a shared goal together. Ensure all collaborators have ‘skin in the game’, providing people and organisations that form a strong basis for the collaboration to affect broader, systemic change.

David Lilley

About the author

David Lilley is Senior Advisor, Community Impact at United Way Australia, and was the founding Director of The Hive Mt Druitt, a Collective Impact initiative in Western Sydney.


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