What is normal anymore? I am constantly discussing what my own “return to normal” looks like with my friends, family and colleagues. And while this normal looks different for each of us, one thing is clear: The pandemic has fundamentally changed our values, requiring us to embrace the challenge and opportunity of redefining normal. The conversation facing the social sector is no different.
Earlier this year, one of our collaborators — Gabrielle Fitzgerald at Panorama Global — wrote a piece on how certain practices that emerge out of crisis need to become a new normal for the social sector. Our sector has the chance to resist the urge to return to “business as usual” in how we work together and accelerate change in the communities we serve.
My nonprofit has organizational goals and a value built around the concept of radical collaboration, so we did not question the value of accelerating our collaborative mindset during the pandemic. Yet what we have learned over the past two years has transformed the way I think about collaboration. Based on this experience, here are my lessons learned that can help other organizations lead change through collaboration.
Big Vision Starts With Small Steps
Most advice on collaborations starts with setting up an appropriate structure. We are often told to make sure we define clear objectives, create a central coordination body and fully support the foundation required for collaboration success. But in our Covid-19 response, my organization learned that rapid, crisis-driven collaboration with a loose structure and minimal financial incentives can be successful.
We helped establish the Covid-19 Action Fund for Africa (CAF-Africa) in June 2020. With over 30 partners, our goal was to supply personal protective equipment (PPE) to frontline, community-based health workers in Africa as quickly as possible. We needed to act fast using limited resources from a few financial donors and the in-kind contributions of the partners. We learned as we went, adapted and built the structure along the way, and it worked. As of May 2021, CAF-Africa was able to deliver just under 82 million units of PPE to nearly 500,000 frontline community-based health workers across Africa.
I recommend other teams consider this model when starting a new collaboration. Yes, there is value in finding alignment on the big things early on, such as strategic objectives, overall values and purpose. But agile processes of iteration can also create great end products. This can also be true for the social sector.
Focus On Principles
In lieu of a defined structure, consider creating an operating model that allows you to make decisions quickly. Focus on your core principles and use those principles as the yardstick throughout planning and implementation. For instance, in our CAF-Africa partnership, we had five principles (i.e., urgency, government endorsement, focus on community health, collaboration and flexibility) that served our needs and enabled us to adapt and respond quickly to the community we set out to serve.
Taking the time to establish your core principles is worthwhile and can happen much quicker than establishing a defined collaboration structure. Having this framework to help make decisions can help keep your organization on track with meeting your goals and avoiding scope creep.
I have adopted this approach at my organization, using principles to make quick decisions on whether our organization should participate in other internal or external collaborations. Because any partnership, no matter how well structured or financed, must rely on the same set of principles to achieve real impact.
Relinquish Control To Local Experts
In any initiative or program partnering with local government, communities and organizations is critical to sustained impact at scale. However, a partnership can never mean one party controls everything.
For CAF-Africa, we saw supporting community-based health workers as an important gap in the global pandemic response, and we wanted to get PPE into these workers’ hands as quickly as possible, which we did. But we also had to trust and give autonomy to our local partners, which meant some of the PPE was allocated to African ministries of health who were, and still are, faced with PPE shortages in their hospitals and local health centers. In the end, it had to be the government’s decision on the best way to use the supplies.
This experience reinforced for me the importance of relinquishing control to local experts in our work. As nonprofit leaders, we must be willing to adapt to the shifting needs of the communities we serve. We are not always in the best position to define those needs — we need to rely on the expertise and knowledge of local leaders — hence the essence and effectiveness of collaboration.
Collaboration is vital in the social sector. The lessons from the past two years have changed our values, and ultimately, the way we do business. Redefining normal in the social sector must include embracing new approaches to collaboration, because reverting back to “business as usual” is not really an option. The communities we serve are counting on us.