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The promise and peril of collaboration

Advocates for social change have much to gain by forming alliances: collaboration offers a powerful, cost-effective way to scale up impact. But collaboration can also be difficult, as organizations struggle to align their interests, philosophies, and funding priorities. Moreover, advocacy groups are also competitors, as potential allies must vie with one another for scarce resources.

That was the experience of Advocates for Youth (AfY), which collaborated with four allied organizations to champion comprehensive sex education at the state level. According to Debra Hauser, AfY’s President, those organizations were often “tripping over each other,” as they tried to work together.

The groups turned to MAG (now Change Elemental) to develop a strategic plan for collaboration, and to help defuse the tensions arising from competition. According to Hauser, MAG was chosen because our consultants “understand the reproductive health field, policy issues, and youth, and are strong enough to corral the group to keep us moving along pretty well.”

The first step was to clarify whether the groups really wanted to work together and to what end.  “MAG helped us to weigh the benefits and costs of collaboration to determine if working together was worth the effort it would take to do it right,” Hauser notes.

Once the participants agreed on the benefits of working together, MAG helped them address barriers to doing so effectively.  “There were times when the discussions were difficult to have, but MAG provided boundaries, guidelines, and guiderails to having them,” Hauser remembers.  “We could look beyond our organizational interests to find the commonality that brought us to the greater good.” 

Strength in numbers

Thanks to the strategic planning effort, Advocates for Youth and its partners continue to work together in many states, and hold an annual summit for state-level advocates. Importantly, the groups used their strategic plan to apply for—and receive—joint funding for their collaborative effort, which enables them to apply their energies to collaboration rather than competition.

The whole initiative was very successful. The five organizations are now all equal partners in making decisions and moving forward, I’m not sure if we would have gotten there if MAG had not been there to facilitate.

Deb Hauser, Advocates for Youth