Collaboration is Key to Creating Lasting Change
Helping one family, one veteran or one individual transition from homelessness into permanent, stable housing is a milestone to be celebrated fully.
Making measurable gains at a community or population level on homelessness is much more challenging. It requires collaborative strategies among service providers and others. And without community-level change, individual homeless success stories may be short-lived.
One of the reasons I joined the ShelterCare Board of Directors was the organization’s demonstrated ability and willingness to collaborate. While I was leading United Way I could count on ShelterCare to model good “agency citizenship.” ShelterCare’s commitment to the common good has always taken precedence over organizational self-interest.
And one organization operating in this fashion has a profound impact on the whole agency community—reducing turf issues and destructive competition while fostering cooperation. It is no surprise that I see this same collaborative spirit at work among the Board members.
Public and private service providers talk about the value of collaboration for very good reasons. Addressing complex community issues, such as homelessness, school readiness, health care access and child abuse can only succeed through a broad-based community strategy founded on coordination, cooperation and collaboration.
Individual agency efforts can help individuals. It takes a system-wide approach, however, to make positive changes at a community or population level. Cooperation and coordination are the starting points for success. But collaboration takes the work a giant step further.
Short of a merger, collaboration is the most demanding kind of partnership between organizations. Leadership must come from the top. The board and executives of involved organizations must share a commitment to a common, agreed-upon vision. Each member of a collaboration must make room for the other partners’ contributions, ideas, traditions and strengths. A commitment to the shared vision must include the willingness to change, take risks, share the credit and share resources necessary for success. In an environment of scarcity, these requirements are particularly difficult. As a result, successful collaborations are rare. Few organizations have the culture, value system and leadership necessary.
One recent example of a collaboration delivering big gains for a particularly vulnerable population is the Homeless Medical Recuperation program. After a homeless person is hospitalized, releasing them back to the streets or to “couch-surfing” for recuperation can result in medical complications, more emergency room visits and re-admissions, and a downward spiraling of the individual’s health. Because of a collaborative partnership among ShelterCare, PeaceHealth and Trillium, medically fragile individuals who are unhoused are released to safe housing for their recuperation. This buys time not only for healing but for case managers to find alternative housing, identify financial benefits and supports, and begin to stabilize chronic health conditions. The financial rewards of each individual success are huge. But the human win, as they say, is priceless.
To make it work, all three organizations have had to learn, adapt, innovate and take risks. It is tough for each to get past the different priorities, business models, values, policies and cultures necessary to accommodate each other. But they have, benefitting all of us in the process.
In the future, success in addressing complex social issues will increasingly require more complicated partnerships between organizations with very different cultures (such as law enforcement and human services). Each of us holds one part of the answer. We can’t move forward on challenging issues without each other. It is only when we put our answers, our hopes and expertise together, seeking common ground and putting the common good first, that real change for vulnerable populations becomes possible.