Smart Collaboration At the Grassroots Level: Emerging Lessons from Detroit's Community Connections Program

Jun 1, 2014

In 2013, the Community Connections resident grants program in Detroit conducted a collaborative inquiry into the topic of smart collaboration among grassroots groups and others working for youth development and community improvement. The inquiry probed the experience and perspectives of 13 Community Connections grantee groups known for effective and strategic collaboration. Leaders of these groups were interviewed and engaged in reflective circle conversations, and project reports and other documents from these groups were reviewed. The inquiry team included four current or former members of the Community Connections Changemakers leadership panel plus three consultants. It was guided by Touchstone Center for Collaborative Inquiry, the program's learning and evaluation partner.1 Learnings from this inquiry are intended primarily for grassroots leaders who want to become more effective collaborators. They also may be useful to larger organizations that want to collaborate with grassroots organizations, and to funders, policy makers and intermediaries that want to promote improved collaboration with grassroots groups.

  • Tap partners’ strengths: Ask people and organizations to do what they’re good at, to contribute what comes easily for them.
  • Offer safety: A climate of mutual respect and kindness helps everyone feel free to voice their ideas, offer unusual contributions, and stretch beyond their comfort zones.
  • Build trust: Trust is essential, and must be earned through trustworthy performance and good-faith communication over time.
  • Demonstrating a commitment to help partners succeed will accelerate the growth of trust.
  • Make it mutually rewarding: It’s important to be attentive and make sure each partner is getting what it needs from the collaboration.
  • Mutual benefit is more common when partners think together and share in decision making.
  • Communicate, and evaluate: Ongoing, active communication – including active listening -- is the lifeblood of successful collaboration. Meeting or touching base every few weeks is
  • helpful. Evaluating the collaborative project every few months is also a good practice.
  • Build on success: When a collaboration goes well, it’s ripe for continuation, expansion, or for spinoff ventures. Start small, and build on what works!
  • Share the money fairly: Collaborative funds must be managed honestly and disbursed promptly. A common frustration among grassroots leaders is when larger, better-funded organizations ask them to collaborate but don’t share funding for the joint project fairly.
  • Stay mission-centered and focused on the community: A shared commitment to community benefit helps to build unity and reduce friction.
  • Respect for each organization’s mission helps ensure that the collaboration is worthwhile for each collaborator
  • Funders should be careful not to perpetuate resource disparities between large and small organizations by assuming the small groups will work or collaborate for little or no funding while awarding much larger grants to larger, professional nonprofits
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