Given the size and complexity of the problems the social sector is trying to solve, the need for collaboration is obvious. Why then, are people not collaborating?

In the abstract, the need, even the imperative, to collaborate is fairly obvious because everyone understands that given the scale and complexity of the problems facing the world, no one player can do everything, or anything, of consequence.

However, despite this understanding, we don’t see any real collaboration happening. The question to be asked therefore is—why aren’t people collaborating, despite the obvious stated advantages of doing so?

The barriers to collaboration

1. We fail to recognise that we are part of an ecosystem

In all (eco)systems, every transaction has two sides to it. For example, in the natural world, the most basic transaction is eat or be eaten. For that ecosystem to thrive, there is no need for either the prey or the predator to recognise that they are part of the larger ecosystem; they just have to play their parts and do what they know how to do.

Acting from one’s own ‘selfish’ perspective doesn’t lead to a thriving ecosystem in the social sector.But merely continuing to do what you know, and acting from one’s own ‘selfish’ perspective doesn’t lead to a thriving ecosystem in the social sector. If I go about my business and somebody else goes about theirs, it’s not an optimal solution, because there is a larger societal goal here.

One understands ‘self-interest’ when one talk about markets and when they fail. However, most social sector systems are not ‘free markets’, and therefore the ‘invisible hand’ does not successfully align self-interest with the larger collective interest.

Participants in our sector must therefore recognise that they are part of this ecosystem instead of just individuals acting in self-interest. We must realise that there is a great deal of value in our world that money and the economic system don’t capture. And to be able to create a genuine ecosystem that generates this value would require us to be mindful of the fact that we are part of the whole. We cannot just be individual players doing the best we can.

Related article: Everybody loves collaboration

2. There is conflict between competition and collaboration

Once we do recognise that we are part of the larger ecosystem, the next barrier is managing the tension between competition and collaboration—when is it good to think of oneself versus when must one think of the herd and the entire system.

There are new ideas coming into the social sector either in the form of social entrepreneurship or through people crossing over from corporates, most of whom have naïve views on how markets work, and tend to go about business in the same competitive manner they did in their past lives. Unfortunately, that view of the world doesn’t work when the system is complex and inter-dependent, and most of the things that we value about the sector are not monetary.

Related article: Amitabh Behar on the changing nature of civil society today

Why aren’t people collaborating, despite the obvious stated advantages of doing so? | Photo courtesy: Charlotte Anderson

So, there is competition within a group—between nonprofits for resources, but also between groups—between funders and grantees.

Though it’s obvious that a collaborative mindset must be brought, acting on this realisation is quite difficult.Consider the case of a funder-grantee relationship. The assumption is that the donor will try to drive down costs while the partner-nonprofit will try to push it up; they will bargain and come with an optimal solution—this is a market approach to coming to the right cost of a project.

The question is, is negotiation or bargaining the right way to optimise the costs of a project? Further, given the power dynamics at play between funders and grantees, this negotiation has very little chance of arriving at the optimal solution.

It feels obvious then that a collaborative and a co-creating mindset must be brought to this relationship. However, actually acting on this realisation is quite difficult in the heat of that conversation. Being mindful, at all times, of all the factors at play, is not easy.

Collaboration therefore requires adopting a very conscious mindset; because it’s not a natural state of being for us and the incentives to work together are never going to be sufficient.

3. There is no vantage point in our ecosystem

There is no place from where you can see the entire ecosystem that you are a part of. You can only see one part of it. As a result, your response to a problem comes only from your point of view, which in turn depends on the location you occupy. It is therefore not a complete view of what’s happening.

It’s important to recognise this: the fact is, you need other people’s points of view to understand the ecosystem in its entirety. Only when you see the system from multiple locations, only when many people come together and share their vision, can you imagine it together.

Related article: Building coalitions

Putting the cart of the ‘how to’ before the horse of the ‘why to’

In our sector today, most conversations have moved to the ‘how-to-collaborate’ mode, a seemingly sensible, practical way of implementing an idea that we all agree upon. On reflection however, it seems to me that the first and possibly a very big barrier to collaboration is that it is a specific mindset that all actors (starting with oneself) should actively and consciously cultivate.

The tools of collaboration, the ‘how-to’—multi-stakeholder dialogues, sustained discussions, working together on projects, developing a shared theory of change, and so on—will start to have traction only if we bring this mindset to the situation.

In conclusion, collaboration is neither ‘natural’ or ‘inevitable’. It is also not primarily a ‘know-how’, a technique and a tool kit. It is at its heart a conscious mindset that when cultivated and brought to bear on situations and interactions can leverage the tools we have to deliver actual collaboration.

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Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy

Ananthapadmanabhan Guruswamy

G. Ananthapadmanabhan (Ananth) works with purpose driven leaders and social sector organisations that aspire to make a difference to the significant issues of our times. He’s the former CEO of Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI). Prior to that, Ananth was the CEO of Amnesty International in India and the International Programme Director at Greenpeace. He started his work life as a teacher in The School – Krishnamurti Foundation India. Ananth graduated in 1988 from IIT Madras with a B Tech in electrical engineering.


  1. Amira Shah Chhabra Reply

    Dear Ananth,

    I was quite fascinated with your point on having a vantage point from where one can first see the whole sector. The unfortunate aspect of philanthropy is that one gears up to become ready to ‘give’, and doesn’t realize as much that one must first gear up to ‘learning how to give’…hence those with money choose sectors to fund, and deny themselves the bird’s eye view. Therefore small collaborations, which are meant for this purpose – of showcasing multiple issues, geographies, and allowing for observations of context, might be interesting…and especially at a time when a lot of people are figuring out their giving strategies.

    Thanks for your points,

  2. Luis Miranda
    Luis Miranda Reply

    I think egos play a large role. Most people in this sector believe, because of their passion (not necessarily their data-driven research), that they alone have the sole right solution. They do not accept that someone else may have a valid point also and that collaborating can have a larger impact.

    Also solutions tend to be driven too down.l, as opposed to bottoms up. It is rare to see the communities involved in the decision making.

  3. From what I gather you are trying to say, Ananth, that we are intuitively narcissistic and thus collaborative tendencies are contrived. As you state here: “Collaboration therefore requires adopting a very conscious mindset; because it’s not a natural state of being for us and the incentives to work together are never going to be sufficient.“

    In reality, it is not a binary as you posit. In fact nature is far more complex than a dog eat hog world that you portray it as. While plants do have self protection methods as allelopathy, competing plants interestingly form root networks to harvest water and create subsoil niches for beneficial microbes. Which also serves as a communication channel for a common perceived threat: say a pest attack.

    So the natural world does not lend itself as easy analogy to the argument you make. In fact, human societies also do not operate as you suggest they do. As Elinor Ostrom has argued, based on extensive global studies of complex relationships in human societies and their relations to the commons, competitors do collaborate to advantage individual gains without affecting collective good. As we have observed in how Amrit Mahal Kavals of Challakere in Chitradurga have been protected for centuries through collaboration amongst obvious competitors.

    Market systems are also not all about crushing competition. Cartelisation is an obvious example. But a less reported one is of collusion, amongst competitors and key decision makers in promoting policies that benefit a particular class of people, say investors. This is the problem we see in how public policy is evolving globally, as Susan George, for instance, argues in ‘Whose Future?’.

    Which is why public policy, and social sector’s role in shaping such policies, has to be built on acknowledging the crucial importance of collaboration. As a matter of fact, collaboration is intuitive, and an unattentive mind can easily miss noticing it, as in saying all fish sellers or vegetable vendors are competitors.

    At a meta scale, social sector has a primary obligation to be transparent and accountable to ensure such collaborative tendencies are not ruptured or displaced by competitive instincts. Which is why the Right to Information Act, MNREGA, Forest Rights Act, Panvhayay Raj and Nagarpalika Act, etc are of crucial importance, and must systematically and substantively held up and followed by example.

    As you know, and it is a matter of public record now, the position taken by APPI under your leadership argued against such collaborative pissibiiities, need even to advance common good, when a decision was taken to not engage with concerns raised over the CRZBNF programme in Andhra Pradesh. This was a classic case of funder setting terms of engagement and not willing to be held accountable. That attitude needs to go for public good to become the mainstays of all interventions, be they by government, civil society or corporate, as is demanded per Art 39 of the Constitution of India.

  4. Manas Rath Reply

    I agree with the points above, but feel there are some very practical, almost trivial, reasons due to which attempts to collaborate stumble. Human beings are not good at understanding complexity or uncertainity and to collaborate under such situations, is extremely difficult. In simpler, clearer, short-term projects, collaboration is easier.

    1. Collaboration means putting aside what I want to do, to find a common cause, goal, process etc with someone else. Ego and inability to understand each other (as you note) can detail this. But a hundred practical realities, too, can. Deliverables of existing grants, multiple projects that senior employees are typically involved in, different grant/funding cycles of the partners, all lead to a mis-match between partners.
    2. Lack of middle management may be the greatest challenge. Even the corporate (and government) sectors struggle with having good, mature, capable, generalist middle managers who can manage projects, help people overcome disagreements and keep the ball rolling till the finish line. The social sector has some good leaders, lots of good foot soldiers, many very skilled specialists but very very few good middle managers. Their role is crucial to collaboration. Further, when staff turn-over is high, continuity is lost, relationships and context have to be re-built and collaborative efforts will suffer.
    3. Collaborative efforts work best when there is a clear goal, clear consequence of not achieving the goal and clear sharing of risk and reward in case of success or failure. Corporate M&A and JVs usually fail because these factors are not clear or believed by all involved parties, or are not clearly reflected in compensation, promotion and other processes. In the social sector, the goal can be fuzzy, consequence of not collaborating can be unclear, and often everyone rushes to claim credit or blame others / distance themselves in case of failure. Tremendous rigour and honesty is needed to be objective about these factors. Few teams have it.

    One way to address some of these factors is trust and understanding–not just amongst leaders of NGOs and funding agencies, but at all levels of the organization. Such trust can make organizations go into a relationship with eyes open, and commitment to people we know well can be the momentum to cross over bumps as and when they do emerge. Programs to help people get to know each other better, are very important for the sector.

    The fact is, even when we understand the macro picture, we are unable to tame and control our micro-behaviors.

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