Imagine you are trapped in your car, overnight, in the midst of a forty degree below zero blizzard. Which item is most important for your survival: hubcaps, a knife, or beef jerky?
This scenario was posed to the 1st Year Fellows in a nonprofit management class on collaboration. We were given the situation—a wrecked vehicle stranded in a ravine during a blizzard—and a list of fifteen objects ranging from the rearview mirror to a compass. Our task was to rank the items in order of importance.
First, without consulting others in the room, we ranked the items. My plan was to ditch the wrecked car and hike out of the ravine to get help. I struggled to see how a spare tire and hubcaps would come in handy on the trek, while ranking the map and compass high on my list as crucial components of my plan.
Next, we separated into groups of five and within our teams, were tasked with discussing the merits of the fifteen items and collectively ranking each again. One team member noted you could cover a spare tire with gasoline and light it on fire to send black smoke as a rescue signal. Signaling for help hadn’t crossed my mind! Another team member pointed out that the map and compass would be useless since it is better to stay put and wait for help.
To conclude the activity, we were shown how outdoor survival experts ranked each item. We then compared our individual ranking and our team rankings to those of the experts. The rankings we formed as a team were closer to the experts’ (meaning a higher chance of survival) than any one individual’s rankings. Working as a team allowed us to draw on each person’s insight and experience, proving that five heads, indeed, are better than one (especially if you’re stuck in a blizzard!).
I finished this activity wholeheartedly believing in the power of collaboration, especially in the context of the nonprofit sector. Collaboration allows nonprofits to share resources and networks and build organizational capacity in pursuit of a common goal. It can be a tool to find creative, comprehensive solutions to complicated issues that cannot be solved alone. However, after further discussion, I left the class with a more complicated understanding because collaboration also poses significant challenges for nonprofits. The time, effort, and energy that must be invested to make a partnership successful are significant. Cultural or institutional differences between two partners could complicate the relationship. Sometimes the collaboration is extrinsically motivated—pressure from funders—rather than internally driven.
Senior Vice President of El Pomar, Cathy Robbins, who led the class, offered three important takeaways to help us reconcile these new and conflicting ideas about collaboration.
- Collaboration between nonprofits is a means to an end, not an end in itself. The answer is not always to collaborate.
- Throughout the process of collaboration, things will change, so be ready to adapt.
- If it’s done right, there’s potential to make a real change through collaboration.
Another takeaway from the class? If you’re caught in a blizzard, don’t throw away the hubcap. To prevent dehydration, pound the hubcap into the shape of a pot, collect snow inside, and use your lighter to melt the snow.