Module Three : Community Collaboration

Benefits of Collaboration

In almost any kind of community initiative, finding other groups and organizations with similar interests, that are willing to work with you on common issues or projects, is strategically advantageous.

Below is a list of the benefits that can result from collaborating with others:

Synergy: The synergy created from working collaboratively will result in greater accomplishments than each group working on its own could ever hope to achieve. If you work separately, it will fragment the efforts and the resources, possibly leading to less accomplishment.

Community Awareness: Increased participation leads to increased community awareness. By involving a number of organizations, your issue or message can be transmitted to a great many more people, and, through word-of-mouth with their associates, to an exponentially larger pool of people.

Share resources: The sharing of resources and expertise can make daunting tasks more manageable. Also, it may be that you require technical expertise, knowledge or facilities that your own organization cannot provide.

Overcome Obstacles: Obstacles faced by one group may be overcome by another group.
Effective Representation: A partnership, coalition or network has more power to influence policy than a single organization because a larger and broader section of the community is represented.

Avoid Duplication:
Working together can help ensure efforts and services aren’t being unnecessarily duplicated, and that there is an appropriate distribution of resources.

Access to Constituents: Sometimes one partner will have a high degree of organizational capacity for planning and implementing programs, but has not developed a trusting relationship with the community it wishes to serve, such as people with disabilities, aboriginal groups, grass roots community groups or particular ethno-racial communities. They may benefit from partnering with others who serve as a bridge into the community.

Access to funding sources:
There may be grant opportunities for which your organization is not eligible, but one of your partners is. By working as a collaborative these funds can be accessed to support your initiative.

Types of Collaborations

There are many different types of collaborative arrangements, ranging from loose network affiliations to fully collaborative structures with complex and formal relationships. The following is one set of categories used to indicate the nature of the relationship among collaborative members. However, in reality, collaboratives frequently develop a mix of the various attributes outlined in the following descriptions.

(i)  Networks

Members of a network have informal ties to each other and non-hierarchical relationships. There are few expectations of members and no official obligations.  Informal networks may emerge simply due to the clustering of people and activities, but frequently networks are deliberately established to promote the sharing of information, tools and resources among individuals and organizations with similar interests.

Networks have many benefits; they can:

  • enhance communication, co-operation and mutual support among organizations and community members
  • raise the standards and quality of services;
  • encourage the development of new models of service; and
  • provide opportunities to form strategic partnerships.

Networks generally do not carry out work, per se, although members may collaborate on tasks and activities, and so generally require relatively little investment in their development and maintenance. However, successful networks require a certain degree of coordination and management. Communication vehicles must be established and maintained, the network must be promoter to prospective members and members must be engaged.

The Ontario Health Promotion Resource System established a set of indicators of network effectiveness which may have relevance to other types of networks as well. They are:

  • the extent to which the relationships established within the network contribute to the planning and implementation of new programs or activities and take advantage of new opportunities;
  • the extent to which the members actually function as a network; [e.g., share information and resources, use common tools and templates, adopt similar administration and reporting procedures, use each others’ materials, make referrals to each other, link websites and otherwise interact with each other];
  •  the range of services and supports provided by the network as a whole;
  • the strength of the relationships between and among network members
  • the extent to which individual members of the network perceive the benefits of their involvement [1] 

(ii)   Alliances

Alliances involve more formal relationships among organizations and individuals, and usually focused on a particular issue or mission. While it is unlikely that there will be legal obligations in place, there will be clear expectations around task performance, contributions and conduct. Alliances are often formed as a means of influencing policy; either to formulate a strong response to a new policy that is seen as detrimental, or to advocate for the development of a policy.

(iii)   Coalitions

A coalition is formal relationship among more than two organizations and perhaps involving individual members as well, which enables them to work together on a specific issue or project. Quite often the coalition will have its own funds and staff, either allocated from members’ own organizational budgets and human resources, or funded by an external source. 

There are three main types of coalitions [2]: 

  • Grassroots coalitions form in times of crisis to pressure political decision-makers to act. They are usually organized by volunteers and are political, controversial and short-lived.
  •  Professional coalitions may form in time of crisis or as part of a long-term strategy to increase their power and influence. Usually a lead organization is established that contributes significant staff and financial resources.
  • Community-Based coalitions have broad community representation and involve both professionals and volunteers/grassroots leaders. They tend to be focused on positive action to improve conditions in community, worksites, schools or other local institutions. Often one agency takes a lead administrative role and seeks funding to support the coalition and its activities.

(iv)  Partnerships

In business, a partner is someone who shares both the risks and profits of a business venture.  Partnerships between non-profit organizations can be defined in similar terms – it is a relationship in which the organizations share resources and responsibilities to achieve a common objective, as well as any resulting rewards or recognition. Partnerships are formal relationships that are defined through a written agreement or contract. 

The Hamilton Public Library has posted a PowerPoint presentation on their website at
which shows a number of partnerships they have established and gives tips on developing and maintaining successful partnerships. According to the presentation partnership development requires:

  • time            
  • effort       
  • small steps
  • shared success       
  • trust         
  • respect       

(v)    Full Collaboration

When organizations fully collaborate on an initiative, the collaboration takes on its own identity.  In a full collaboration, the new entity will have its own budget, constitution or terms of reference, dedicated human resources and a plan of action. For example, walkON[3] is a community partnership including local Heart Health projects, municipalities, and public health Units formed to promote walkable communities by raising awareness and educating the public. walkON has its own website and produces its materials under the walkON logo. It has its own funding sources separate from those of the collaborating organizations.

Collaborative Roles

There are many different roles that organizations can play in terms of their relationship with each other, such as:

  • Convener: initiates a public discussion of a community issue
  • Catalyst: provides initial leadership and credibility but is committed to a longer-term strategy 
  • Conduit: acts as the “lead” organization in that it manages the necessary contractual and financial obligations that come with receiving grants.  It is important that the conduit not be allowed to dominate the initiatives as a result of taking on this role
  • Funder: provides financial resources, and may also be actively involved in the design and evaluation of the project.  A clear understanding of the scope and limit of their authority is required.
  • Technical Assistance Provider: provides data, technical information, professional opinions or particular skills
  • Capacity-Builder: provides resources and skills training to community members to increase their ability to effect change. Capacity-builders aim to increase skills, knowledge and resources, but also community power and ownership.
  • Partner: shares in risks, responsibility, investment and rewards.
  • Advocate: focuses on changing policy or systems
  • Community Organizer: interested in who is “at the table”; i.e. who is involved and who has decision-making power. The community organizer works to maximize community participation and to ensure that those who are traditionally excluded from decision-making are included as full partners in the process.
  • Facilitator: assists in community problem-solving process by liaising among various players and being a source of fairness, encouragement
  • Evaluator: provides information about how well the collaborative is performing and whether its objectives are being met. [4]


Challenges of Collaboration

While the vision of a collaborative may be very compelling, every day realities may pose considerable challenges and tensions. Before starting or joining a collaborative, it is important to have a clear understanding of the risks, challenges and expectations that are involved. Each organization has to assess the level of risk the collaborative entails to the organization, in terms of finances, reputation, time, energy and other “lost” opportunities, and decide if it is acceptable. You will want to have a clear understanding of the conditions for withdrawing from the collaborative, and be prepared to absorb any failures. What sounds good in theory may not work as well in practice, especially working within community settings where there are many variables beyond your control.

Probably the biggest challenge in developing and managing a successful collaborative is finding the time and energy to nurture the positive relationships required to function effectively, particularly in times of rapid change or increased pressure on resources. It is often commented that working collaboratively takes longer and is more complex, difficult and sometimes frustrating, but we may also develop superior solutions and have a greater impact.

Factors That Contribute To Successful Collaborations

The Ontario Prevention Clearinghouse (OPC) ( now known as Health Nexus) produced a tip sheet on “Dynamic Partnerships “in 1997 that provides reflections, references and resources about partnerships. It explains that “partnering with other organizations to support a common goal involves “an interdependence of elements along with increasing complexity that requires less competition and more crossing of boundaries and sectors”.

They identified eleven factors that contribute to successful partnerships and collaborations.

1.    People: Organizations do not work together, people do – thus individual characteristics will be a factor in whether the collaborative is successful or not.  Check out the “chemistry” between people and their level of commitment to the collaborative.

2.    Vision: Create a shared vision and common goals that incorporate all of the members’ perspectives and interests, and identifies mutual needs that cannot be met by one organization alone.

3.    Trust:  Take some time to explore your common ground. “Trust is built through mutual respect for each person’s experience, knowledge and contribution. “

4.    Time: Do not give in to the pressure for speed and action.  Getting to know each other in order to developing a solid partnership takes time, as does planning and implementation.

5.    Planning:  Working together effectively requires a great deal of planning. All aspects of the collaborative, including purpose, function, decision-making process, the risks and benefits to each member and anticipated results needs to be considered, agreed upon and committed to (usually by signing a written agreement). Subsequently, every meeting, every workplan, every approach to a prospective member or funder, has to be planned.

6.    Communication: There needs to be a transparent flow of information among members, and mechanisms for ensuring that all members are kept up-to-date on matters relating to the collaborative and have clear means of voicing concerns and suggestions.

7.    Learning Together: Partnerships involve learning about each other, about the issues or needs that are being addressed, and about how to work together effectively.

8.    Decision-Making: It is crucial that how decisions are made is agreed upon right at the start of the partnership and adhered to throughout its duration. Partners should also agree on a problem resolution process.  Agreements regarding the investment of people, time and resources need to be negotiated and clearly understood by all partners.

9.    Leadership: There are many options for leadership; e.g. elect a Chair or Co-Chairs, or establish different roles for different members. It may be formal or informal. Shared leadership can renew energy and increase commitment.

10.    Technology: Electronic communication can enhance and support the work of the partnership by facilitating connections and opportunities for innovation. An assessment of current systems and technical capacities of each of the members is required before effective information and communications systems can be established.

11.    Flexibility: As circumstances change, one or more members may not be able to contribute to the extent originally intended, or may not be able to remain involved at all. The remaining members will have to make adjustments accordingly.


Roberts, J. Alliances, Coalitions and Partnerships; Building Collaborative Organizations. New Society Publishers; 2004.

Torjman, Sherri and Eric Leviten-Reid. Comprehensive Community Initiatives. The Caledon Institute of Social Policy. 2003. March 5, 2006.

Himmelman, Arthur. Collaboration as a Bridge from Social Service to Social Justice. Paper presented at the Healthier Communities Summit in San Diego, April 1995.







Working Effectively Across Different Organizational Cultures

Conflict within collaboratives is often inevitable, due to different organizational values, cultures, levels of experience and degree of expertise among organizations. These differences make it difficult to work in harmony. Despite common concerns, organizations have their own “take” on the problem, and their own set of assumptions and preferred solutions. They may also have different expectations around decision making processes, information flow, time commitments, and how power, authority and responsibility is shared. Collaborating organizations don’t need to have the same culture in order to be successful, but they do need to understand and accommodate differences among them.

Questions that might be useful to ask before committing to the collaborative are:

  • Do partners have similar mandates? Do they overlap? Is there duplication?
  • Is there a conflict of interest among any of the participating organizations or with the aims of the collaborative? For example, is there likely to competition for funds?
  • How are decisions to be made? 
  • How will the work load be shared?
  • What constraints does each of the partners have in terms of costs, political concerns and approval processes?
  • What are the expectations in terms of time commitment; both in terms of the amount of time required for effective participation and whether there needs to be strict adherence to time frames; e.g. meetings stopping and staring on time, critical deadlines for task completion. 
  • Is there an expectation that some work will be handled by volunteers? How are they to be recruited? Who is responsible for their training and supervision? Are participating organizations or individuals expected to perform some work on their own time?

Tool 1: When to Start a Coalition




1. Does the problem affect a broad range of people?



2. Is the problem complex, requiring information and expertise from various sectors of the community?



3. Is there a need for broad public awareness or education to accomplish the goal?



4. Is there a gap in existing services or programs such that no existing organization is clearly mandated to take on this work?



5. Are there other organizations that see this problem as a priority?



6. Are there other organizations that are willing to work together to address the problem?



7. Is this problem best addressed through the joint ownership and responsibility of a number of organizations



8. Are the potential members of the coalition willing to relinquish individual control over the activities and outcomes of the coalition and actively engage in a collective process?



9. Are there potential members of the coalition willing to commit to and abide by democratic decision-making procedures?



10. Are the organizational goals and policies of the potential members in alignment iwth those of the coalition?



11. Are there resources that can be shared or obtained to assist with the work?



12. Is there a true commitment to work together and produce results, irrespective of funder requirements for collaboration?



If you responded “no” to any of the questions above, a coalition might not be an appropriate structure to accomplish your goals. 

(from Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition: From the Ground Up:
An Organizing handbook for Healthy Communities,. 2002)

Tool 2: Collaboration Framework

The following Collaboration Framework[1] compares the purpose, structure and process of different levels of collaboration.






  • Dialogue
  • Common Awareness
  • Information flow
  • Create support base
  • Non-hierarchical
  • Loose, flexible link
  • Roles loosely defined
  • Concern is primary link
  • Low key leadership
  • Low decision-making
  • Information Communication



  • Match needs
  • Provide some co-ordination
  • Limits duplicating services
  • Ensures tasks done


  • Central body of communicators
  • Semi-formal links
  • Roles somewhat defined
  • Links are advisory
  • Develops new resources
  • Joint budget



  • Facilitative leaders
  • Complex decision-making
  • Some conflict
  • Centralized communication (formal)



  • Share resources
  • Co-ordinate activities
  • Address common issues
  • Merge resource base
  • Create something new


  • Central body of decision-makers
  • Roles defined
  • Links formalized
  • New resources
  • Joint budget



  • Autonomous leadership
  • Focus is on issue
  • Group decision-making by task groups
  • Communication frequent and clear




  • Share ideas
  • Willing to pull resources from existing systems
  • Develop commitment
  • Minimum three years


  • All members involved in decision-making
  • Roles and time defined
  • Links formal
  • Written agreement
  • New resources
  • Joint budget



  • Shared leadership
  • Decision-making with all members
  • Communication is prioritized


  • Accomplish shared vision
  • Develop benchmarks
  • Build inter-dependent system
  • Consensus used in shared decision-making
  • Roles, time and evaluation formalized
  • Links are formal and written in work assignments
  • Leadership high
  • Trust level high
  • Productivity high
  • Ideas / decisions equally shared
  • Highly developed communication


[1] The Duffy Group, Partners in Planning; 1997.

Tool 3: Tips for Improving Coalition Functioning





1. Individual Members

  • members are confident in each others’ skills
  • diversity of ideas/perspectives
  • creativity
  • humour
  • openness to feedback, new ideas and criticism
  • willing to give and take re: time/profile/work/ information/ expertise


  • personal agendas; people who are in it:

–  to enhance image

–  to gain access to resources

–  to sabotage efforts

–  to push a certain idea

–  make them feel good

  • passive-aggressive personalities;
  • different levels of passion - real or perceived
  • undermine decision-process
  • personality conflicts
  • control issues
  • lack of flexibility
  • lack of understanding of health promotion concepts
  • tension between professionals and volunteers


  • look at potential coalition members to evaluate suitability; look for commitment towards outcomes and motivation and believe in the objectives of the coalition
  • terms of reference should include process for conflict resolution; use/increase skills in conflict management
  • get to know others on coalition
  • elect chair with good facilitation skills to manage disruptive members
  • provide skills training; orientation to members
  • create a “space” for community volunteers; differentiate role from professional members; provide time on agenda for their input and feedback.

2. Group Process

  • trust
  • respect
  • shared power
  • shared ownership
  • teamwork
  • team “check-ins”
  • defined roles
  • understand investments and benefits
  • mutual care and concern
  • have fun
  • wealth of resources within the group’ members willing to share resources


  • varying expectations
  • use of jargon, systems that some non-professional members do not understand or are not comfortable with
  • lack of understanding of stages of group development
  • role confusion
  • unequal resources of members
  • lack of respect for others’ viewpoints
  • lack of investment
  • lack of commitment to take on tasks, to work towards outcomes
  • lack of accountability
  • distrust
  • power imbalances
  • racism/sexism
  • resistance to change


  • set terms of reference or agreement that defines roles, investments,  benefits
  • take time to build good group process
  • set “ground rules” for how group members relate to each other
  • share ideas, life, “check-ins”, build in activities that show care and concern
  • let people offer what they can instead of expecting a certain level of participation
  • recognize value of coalition regularly/annually through evaluation and  celebration of accomplishments
  • address issues openly; re-identify goal and objectives, members roles; clarify values, principles, ground rules; if insufficient “common ground”, evaluate whether the group has what it takes to go on – consider disbanding.

3. Leadership

  • understanding of leadership and role of facilitator/chair


  • negative leadership style (e.g. controlling, not allowing input)


  • develop understanding of leadership and role of facilitator/chair
  • ensure all have input
  • work to consensus
  • have annual elections for leadership positions

4. Decision-Making Process

  • everyone has input
  • work towards consensus


  • hasty or inequitable decision-making


  • chair has  good facilitation skills
  • actively seek input from all members (silence is not the same as approval)
  • allow time for discussion; explore reasons for differences of opinion

5. Relationship With Member Organizations’ Senior Management


  • direction given by outside manager who doesn’t know what goes on inside the coalition
  • members not being able to make decisions - have to take it back to  own supervisor/board


  • need to obtain “buy-in” from senior management of member organizations
  • request delegation of authority to staff representative on coalition
  • members sign agreement that states investment, decision-making process, etc.

6. Achieving Objectives

  • accomplishment
  • creating positive change in community
  • good reputation
  • involvement of target group
  • access to resources
  • community buy-in
  • clear focus/purpose


  • lack of direction
  • different agendas
  • lack of resources
  • lack of follow-up
  • lack of evaluation



  • Lack of direction: develop strategic plan involving target population
  • Different agendas – diffuse and change/increase number of members with similar  commitment to group goal
  • Lack of resources:

    - go to agency CEO’s to request resources
    - members identify own resources to see what  they can contribution
    - review potential membership and their resources
  • Lack of follow-up: find out why - may be the person lacks skills/ knowledge/ experience: mentor with someone who is learning; if due to forgetting/ disorganized, provide check list to follow
  • Lack of Evaluation – create evaluation plan

7. Recruitment of New Members

  • new members join coalition to bring in new ideas, perspectives and resources


  • need to find new members due loss of members or to obtain needed skills, experience, access to resources, etc.


  • identify potential benefits of membership
  • plan outreach/communications strategy
  • make use of existing members’ contacts