Building Real Collaboration Into Your Organization

How focusing on the three organizational pillars of culture, people, and leadership can help fuel meaningful collaboration.

By Pratichi Shah posted on Stanford Social Innovation Review on May. 24, 2017

It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

—Charles Darwin

Across sectors and sub-sectors, collaboration is considered critical to organizational success—just ask. Has your organization identified collaboration as a fundamental leadership skill? Check. Listed it as an organizational value? Done. Do you deliberately and consistently shape your organization for impactful internal and external collaboration? Not so fast. As with many things, leaders often assume that if they say it, it will happen. It won’t. Leaders need to spend the time and energy to turn the catchphrase into reality, and focusing on three organizational pillars—culture, people, and leadership—can help. Here’s how.


Build it. No, really. Too often, we think organizational culture will emerge as a function of mission alone. But to really shape culture and embed collaboration as an integral part, leaders need to be explicit about its importance. Go beyond identifying collaboration as an organizational value, and make it part of your employer brand. In other words, identify what is unique and positive (in addition to mission) about being part of the organization. Talk about the kinds of collaboration that may further your organization’s mission and encourage exploration in all departments as a regular way of approaching work. Brainstorm where synergies may lie—inside and outside of the organization—and how to explore them..

Ask what makes collaboration worth it to you. What is reasonable for your organization to give in return for a resource of value? Can you share knowledge or access to your programs, for example, in return for exposure to a new audience or a supplement to your services? Red Rover, an animal welfare organization in Sacramento, California, proactively networks with other nonprofits with the explicit purpose of understanding how they might help other organizations. They have formed alliances with women’s organizations and shelters, finding sanctuary for pets that the women were reluctant to leave. For example, when a domestic violence survivor expressed concern over the care of her dogs while staying at WEAVE, a Sacramento-based women’s shelter, WEAVE turned to Red Rover, which provided a grant to board her dogs. The woman and her animal companions found the care they needed; the organizations furthered their missions of saving lives. How can leaders embed this kind of thinking into organization? During strategic planning meetings, talk about what kinds of relationships do and don’t add value. Ask: Where can we exchange or combine resources to achieve greater results? Who could or should we be talking to?

Try and fail. Leaders should also allow and encourage trial and error in testing collaboration opportunities. Internally, it can be useful to bring together seemingly disparate departments to look for and consider less-obvious synergies. For example, a research organization I worked with asked its externally facing program staff to help shape an assessment of internal operations, including human resources and finance. The result was greater buy-in from staff on the assessment and a more robust instrument that helped shape staff-friendly infrastructure. Externally, encourage staff, volunteers, and board members to use a trial/failure lens as they talk with community and constituents about mission, strategy, and organization plans.

Call out and celebrate wins. In addition to talking about experiments and failure, leaders should celebrate successes and innovative efforts. Encourage discussion and sharing among staff and with external partners about finding and executing collaborative opportunities. Understand why and how successes happened, and draw those insights into everyday conversation to spread the learnings throughout your organization.


Talk about collaboration from the start. It’s far easier to set the course and stay on it than to redirect a ship after it has set sail. Every conversation with a prospective employee or potential stakeholder is an opportunity to establish collaboration as an organizational pillar from the beginning. As you encounter potential staff, board members, and volunteers, talk about the value you place on internal and external collaboration, and its role in accomplishing the mission. Make that conversation part of all onboarding processes. Emphasize that each person—regardless of their role—is encouraged to discover and pursue synergies.

Seek out collaboration ninjas. Staff your organization, volunteer ranks, and governing bodies with people who will actively look for collaboration opportunities, support the process, and contribute to successful partnering. People good at this usually have strong communication and empathy skills, and the flexibility needed to navigate ambiguous and chaotic situations. Also look for people who are naturally curious, as they are often more tolerant of ambiguity, and tend to seek out knowledge and information. People who are comfortable and productive in more-nebulous environments can improve outcomes and help bolster the morale of others.

Reward, reinforce, and proselytize. Integrate collaboration into all processes that affect staff. Each process is an opportunity to positively impact employees and reinforce a culture of collaboration and synergy. Think about elements like organizational policies. While they seem more about compliance and less about people, they send a strong message about the organization. Do your policies reinforce collaboration or bog down the process with elaborate protocols? Reward team members who help foster collaboration (via shout-outs, bonuses, non-cash rewards, or greater exposure to opportunities). When developing employees, strengthen skills around collaboration. Finally, leverage the most important relationship with staff—managers. Managers should not only carry forward the messages, empowerment, and culture cues around collaboration and cooperation, but also embed collaboration in performance management via employee goals and outcomes assessment.

Use collaboration to take talent even further. By linking with other organizations in the same sub-sector or geography, or that have complementary missions, leaders can share job candidates, create new career trajectories, and even build multi-organization professional development programs that take advantage of shared training goals and economies of scale. The Jewish leadership network Leading Edge, for example, is finding that this kind of collective approach helps create greater focus on leadership, increases awareness about talent issues, and sustains an ongoing investment in talent, management, and leadership.


Make no exceptions. Ensure that all levels of leadership align around the value of collaboration and don’t just pay it lip service. Leaders set and reinforce an organization’s message and tone, and when actions don’t match organizational messages, it creates a credibility gap. Leaders should also model collaborative behaviors by sharing information in all directions, and constantly looking for synergistic relationships internally and externally.

Empower and energize. Explicitly make it everyone’s charge—whether intern or board member—to seek out and act on alliances that further the organization’s mission, and encourage creativity and experimentation. Frame collaboration as a path to success.

Be the rock. Internal and external collaboration can lead to new ways of working—and for some, feelings of instability. Leaders must be the constant; they must share progress and offer realistic reassurance about the future. Offer support via coaching or professional development, and work to build trust across the organization—through transparent communication and accountability—so that staff can support each other.

Focusing on these pillars can help infuse collaboration into all aspects of your organization, and eventually reap the rewards that come with working together.

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