by Phillip Henderson | President, Surdna Foundation

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I have been thinking a lot about collaboration recently. 

The Surdna board has already met twice this year, once in retreat to think deeply about where Surdna is heading and once at our regular February board meeting. Our board’s culture is one in which working together with staff, and learning from one another—including learning from our failures—feels straightforward. And our three programs were created for the very purpose of collaborating toward fostering just and sustainable communities. But, at Surdna we have learned that collaboration is neither easy nor straightforward. It takes work and commitment.  


Collaborative work has always felt stronger than go-it-alone work. But I’m now realizing just how difficult genuine collaboration is and how un-natural it can feel at first.  For most people and organizations, there is a natural tendency to go to your own corner with your ideas, and work in isolation. It’s certainly easier and faster. But we’re not supposed to be in the business of easy and fast.


Since I arrived to lead the foundation nearly seven years ago, I have emphasized the need to collaborate in ways that reflect the complexity and interdependence of the challenges we are trying to address.  Our mission of just and sustainable communities provides a clear destination, but actually getting there requires addressing a number of deeply interwoven and complex parts from social justice and the environment, to the economy, and culture.  Attempting to isolate just one of these moving parts, and using all available resources to tackle it, we have learned, just does not work. So, Surdna’s three programs are carefully interconnected so that they act together in a creative, innovative, and productive manner. Their approach to a solution must match the reality—and the interconnectedness—of the challenge.  This requires coordination, sharing, learning together, and collaboration both in spirit and in practice.  And that’s really hard.


Over the past year, Surdna has been experimenting with various methods to enhance our collaboration. Staff invented a monthly cross-program conversation called the Idea Lab, where program teams talk with each other about the work, about new ideas, emergent issues, and areas of common interest and investment.  We’ve also been experimenting with sending cross-program teams on site visits, conferences, and meetings with experts so that we are out in the field learning together.  These have proven truly valuable, and have led us into deeper conversations and even sharper understanding of each other’s work.  But all of this collaboration is time intensive, and, as we all know, there are always too few hours in the day.  Keeping collaboration as a high priority requires us to continuously build the case that working together in this way makes a real difference in our ability to effect change.


But to limit our thinking about collaborative work to our program teams doing more stuff together is to miss the bigger picture -- effective collaboration has to happen both internally and externally.  I was recently in Detroit at the Environmental Grantmakers (EGA) Association’s State of the States Meeting where I moderated a conversation about collaboration between national and place-based funders with Rip Rapson, president of the Kresge Foundation, and Tonya Allen, president of the Skillman Foundation.  Kresge and Skillman are deeply engaged in Detroit and have similar goals, yet both leaders were frank about friction in their styles and perspectives.  Let me repeat: collaboration is hard!  Nevertheless, Skillman and Kresge--and Surdna--remain committed to building strong collaborative partnerships because we each recognize the fundamental truth that our dollars and influence, when wielded individually, don’t stretch nearly far enough to set in motion the kind of change we seek. 


Working together isn’t just a good idea, it’s a necessity. 


The conversation in Detroit illuminated the importance of taking the time to get clear on what your organization’s special skill or niche is, and then working with partners to develop a shared strategy to form the basis of a collaboration.  Without these two components, collaboration is nearly impossible, irrespective of the reservoirs of good will or shared good intentions.  Being clear about each partner’s role and agreeing what the collective is trying to do is critical.


This perspective becomes clearer when you look at partnerships like Living Cities,  ArtPlace, or the Strive Together network  that are specially designed collaborative entities created to pool dollars, expertise, and reputation.  These partnerships have been able to bring together the heft of many powerful institutions, but they are only successful when their strategies are aligned and when the partners are self-aware enough to know their respective roles, and understand who is good at what.


Formal partnerships like Living Cities or ad hoc collaborations based on an emerging issue, take time and resources to do, much less do well.  As with internal collaboration, we need to first understand what the value is of creating an external partnership so that it is then easier to determine whether and why the extra time and resources are worth it.



At Surdna, we have always been joiners.  Our large ambitions coupled with our relatively small dollars make joining with our peers a priority.  Whether collaborating within the foundation or with outside partners, we believe it is the only way of realizing our ambitious mission of just and sustainable communities.

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