We read textbooks, scholarly journals and articles on best practices for collaboration, touting the benefits in great detail, and barely glossing over the down sides of collaboration. The “real deal” is often messy, and no one wants to be the one who shares all the gory details, for a number of reasons. As a result, many of us go into collaborations wide eyed and bushy-tailed, not knowing the dangers that lurk within. 

Yet, it is these very lessons that need to be shared so that others who come after us can structure collaborations in a manner that codifies roles, responsibilities, risks and rewards; maximizes transparency and accountability; outlines the “rules of the road”, so to speak; describes how decisions will be made and how conflicts will be resolved. 

While I have been blessed to have been a part of some great collaborations in which the outcomes were better than any individual or single entity could achieve, I have also been part of collaborations that didn’t work so well. I learned a lot from the collaborations that worked, but, I have learned infinitely more from those that didn’t work. I think you can relate.

There have been times I’ve invited people to work with me, only to have been outmaneuvered politically, finding myself on the outside looking in, while others reaped the economic benefits of my work. There have been other times when I have made grants to collaborations that fell apart, because at least one of the collaborative partners “didn’t play nicely in the sandbox,” or perform as agreed. 

I have seen other collaborations that functioned nicely only until funding was granted. In those cases, there were no rules concerning what would happen in the event that funding would occur; how to equitably compensate people who created value and the terms and conditions under which funding would be divided among the collaborative partners. 

Ironically, I have learned, through some of my very best efforts at structuring collaborative agreements in a manner that minimizes conflict, that it is impossible to legislate collaboration. Either people have the hearts, minds and core values to behave ethically, or they don’t. Legal documents don’t change the essence of who we are. However, having a formal agreement in writing does mitigate the risks involved, and provides for legal remedies in the event of disputes. 

It is very important to consult with an attorney as early as possible in the formative stages of the collaboration—even if you’re dealing with people with whom you have been acquainted with for years. And yes, this includes people that you consider to be friends and colleagues. Every collaboration is different and has different levels of risks and rewards. On top of that, people’s circumstances and motives can vary over time.

I have learned a lot over the years and have gotten much better at collaboration. Even so, there are still questions that I find that must be asked to inform the collaboration while others are still subject to further exploration. 

For example, for those projects that aim to develop broad-based community coalitions to create new initiatives that scale programs and services: Who really owns the resulting proprietary processes and systems, particularly when the group facilitating the initiative is not a legal entity? Who owns intellectual property that is developed as a result? Who gets to decide who can and cannot participate? What objective criteria should be used to determine who gets accepted, screened out or “voted off the island”?  How do we ensure that collaborative partners and other community stakeholders are properly recognized and fairly compensated for their contributions to the success of the initiative? 

What role can philanthropy play in facilitating an equitable planning and implementation process? How do we ensure that the due diligence they perform goes beyond looking at annual reports and 990’s to better understand the community dynamics and take into account the voices of a broad range of local actors? How do we prevent marginalization of stakeholders based on criteria that have nothing to do with their ability to help the collaborative produce positive outcomes? How do we make sure that the people who are most impacted by the work have a real voice and power in the process and not just a listing on a roster?

I don’t have all the answers. In fact, I don’t think anyone does. However, I am sufficiently curious that I will spend time exploring the possibilities, incorporating the findings in my work and sharing what I learn.  

I love the sound of Kumbaya.


— Valerie Leonard, Founder, Nonprofit Utopia 

Illinois is counting on you 

During these disturbing times, it is difficult to imagine what it will be like to gather again in worship, celebration and bereavement. While that future remains elusive, the need for strong communities, good schools, safe roads and fair representation will remain the same. The results of Census 2020 will indeed shape our future.  

Think of your community: Census results help determine how money is allocated to prevent child abuse and to provide housing assistance for older adults; to show where schools, clinics, food assistance, and community mental health services are needed; and to fund libraries. Business owners will use 2020 Census data to make critical decisions. 

Think of your local schools: Census results help determine how money is allocated for the Head Start program, school lunches, grants that support teachers, and for special education.

Think of your morning commute: Census results influence highway planning and construction, as well as grants for buses, subways and other public transit systems.

Think of your government:  The results of this once-a-decade count determine the number of seats each state has in the U.S. House of Representatives and is used to draw congressional and state legislative districts.

While these are unpreceded times, it is more important than ever that we do our part to ensure a fair census count, so that when this is behind us, whatever that may look like, Illinois will have the resources needed to strengthen and rebuild our state.  

If you haven’t done so, please take a few moments to complete the census. You can respond in English by calling (844) 330-2020 or in Spanish by calling (844) 468-2020. To respond online or for help in other languages, go to https://2020census.gov/en/ways-to-respond.html.

Stay safe, stay strong and please be counted! 

— Beverly Graham, President, Women League of Voters of Oak Park and River Forest