How Can Inter-Organizational Collaboratives Build Trust?

Here is an article from Charity Village Research about how organizations can work to build inte-rorganizational  collaboaratives.  By Joan Roberts, Septebmer 19, 2011

You hear it all the time. For a collaborative to become successful there needs to be a high level of trust amongst its members. I agree. Trust is needed for collaborative members to share important and relevant information and work out issues that cross their organizational boundaries. But what exactly is trust? It can be an elusive concept. Trust is an emotion or a feeling held by an individual based on observations, facts and gut instinct that tells you that you can rely on a person, product or process to do what it is supposed to do. In a collaborative we are relying on each other to do what we are supposed to do. And if we can’t deliver on our commitments then we need to talk about why and then figure out how to the task done.
Yet you must often compete with other collaborative members for funding or profile — so how you can trust a competitor? This often is the crux of the problem.

Despite being competitors, private and nonprofit sector organizations often find ways to work together. It is the only way industry standards ever develop. Private sector competitors join together in industry associations to work together on common causes like industry standards and regulatory frameworks. Nonprofits cooperate in a similar manner in sector organizations that advocate on behalf of their members.

Despite remaining competitors, trust can develop when collaborative members do what they promise, and hold each other accountable when they don’t. Holding each other accountable means communicating that something wasn’t done and a conversation is held about what to do next. It might feel like confrontation and is not easy but it’s essential to achieve common goals.
So to build a high level of trust, we need to follow up on our promises and communicate honestly and openly.

Why don’t members do what they promise?
Collaborative members often want to minimize risk (such as loss of status) and their investment of time. For some people it’s strategic not do anything until they see others following through. Committee work then becomes a tit for tat process. If one person does something it opens the doors for others. Being the first one to commit and follow through shows leadership, and others notice. Sometimes people are not a good fit for the task. Some people never follow through on anything because they are not good at detail work. So if they are idea people, give them homework related to generating ideas, ie, come up with ideas on how an event or a project could be developed. Others can come up with the project plan. Another type of person likes to network and call people. Aspiring politicians like this kind of work.

Very often collaborative members are not clear on their role so they do as little as possible. Their supervisor has not discussed what they can or cannot do and their home organization does not have a policy that defines what staff can do at collaborative meetings. An organizational policy on collaboration can help provide direction.

Why don’t collaborative members communicate honestly and openly?
The word “communication” is bandied about so much that its meaning is now vague and ambiguous. Some people consider open and honest communication to be providing critiques of everyone’s contribution or performance. Venting and gossip are easier than taking the risk of confronting a colleague on not doing what they were supposed to do.

Truly honest and open communication means members sharing their needs, wants and perspectives openly and that can easily lead to differences: in other words, conflict.

Collaboratives are complex organizations trying to resolve complex issues. Collaborative members work in an environment that can be best described as a minefield of previously unsurfaced conflict ready to trigger turf wars. Working through this conflict is the raison d’être of a collaborative. And not many people say “bring it on” to conflict. Just the thought of conflict can make stomachs churn and anxiety rise.

What does honest and open communication look like?
Is everyone really clear about what open and honest communication looks like? Open communication means information is shared in a timely manner, secrets are not kept from other members and decisions are transparent. That means they are written down (meeting minutes) and accessible to members. As well, collaborative members know who can make decisions and if they are not one of the decision makers they find out about the decisions quickly. This is what is meant by the saying “keeping people in the loop”.

Individual members need to be comfortable enough to give feedback to others. Feedback is critically important to the individual and organizational learning process. If there is little feedback between collaborative members, the collaborative does not engage in a joint learning process, which is critical to address the complex issue.

If you are a collaborative member, you need to develop high-level communication and conflict resolution skills. Giving feedback, honing your emotional intelligence, listening and paraphrasing skills and giving straight talk are learnable personal development skills.

You can also help build trust by building the governance infrastructure that supports working through conflict in a positive and transparent manner. A governance framework defines how decisions get made, who get to make them, and who gets power and responsibility, through policies that deal with recurring issues.

How to walk your talk and pull your weight?
No matter what position you hold, you need to discern what you personally have control over in this process of building trust. For those of us who do not hold formal authority over others (like managerial authority), your control is limited to your own behaviour and reactions to events.

Since you can’t control what other people will do, you need to let go and trust the process. This means you acknowledge that conflict and difficulties will arise and accept that it’s ok because it can be worked out. If you can believe that conflict is normal and part of the process, you may not get as nervous about it. If you do feel anxious, manage it by acknowledging it and finding ways to decrease it. Techniques such as deep breathing, taking a walk, and generating laughter can help. All of us need our own personal stress management program to manage the day to day stress of modern life.Collaboration is just one additional stressor.

Help develop a culture of following through by keeping your promises, including completing tasks and attending meetings. When you hear people use the term she does not “walk the talk”, this refers to people who do not do as they say they are going to do. No matter whether you are in a support or leadership role, if you do not follow through you send the message that you do not walk the talk. Everyone will give you a second chance, but after that they will trust you not to follow through. And if you don’t follow through they’ll wonder why they should. This leads to the wrong kind of trust being built. The group now trusts that nothing will happen with this collaborative.

It’s easy to talk about the difficulty of building trust in a collaborative, but it’s critical to remember that building trust starts with the individual member-you- having the courage to act as someone that can be trusted. A trustworthy collaborative member develops and uses good communication skills to hold others accountable in a positive rather than blaming manner.

A trustworthy member walks the talk and delivers on their promises.

Only a collaborative with trustworthy members can build enough trust to resolve complex social problems.

Joan Roberts, author of Alliances Coalitions and Partnerships: Building Collaborative Organizations has just authored a new book called Governance for Collaboratives: A Guide to Resolving Power and Conflict Issues to help practitioners deal with the complexity of crossing organizational boundaries and attempting large scale change. Chocked full of anecdotes, tools and processes, the book is designed to help practitioners manage the complexity of inter-organizational collaboration. More information can be found at

Read the article here

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