I’ve been reading a biography about Steve Jobs and came across a story I loved and wanted to share. Steve Jobs lived down the street from an elderly man who took an interest in him and shared life lessons with him. One day, he asked Jobs to come into his garage, and he pulled out a homemade rock tumbler made from a coffee can, an old motor and some rubber bands. Jobs and his elderly neighbor got it working and then set out to find some rocks in the backyard – some jagged, some ugly and all unremarkable. They loaded them into the can with liquid and grit powder. The old man turned on the rock tumbler and said, “Come back tomorrow.” Jobs remembered that it made a big racket as the stones went around and around. He came back the next day and opened the can – it was full of amazingly beautiful, polished rocks. The man said, “The same common stones that had gone in, through rubbing against each other and creating a bit of friction and a bit of noise, have come out as beautiful, polished rocks. People coming together are like these rocks – individually, we can be ordinary. But, through teamwork and collaboration, we can create beauty.” I love this metaphor; it got me thinking about collaboration in the social sector. You cannot go to a meeting without this topic coming up. But, we often focus more on “coming together” rather than really “working together” toward results. The best collaborations are made up of a diverse group of people who come together toward a cause they are deeply passionate about, make some noise, sometimes collide, but work together to polish one another to create something beautiful together.

2017 was a rocky year for many of us. It was a year of natural and manmade disasters – where things literally and figuratively fell apart. I fear that suffering deepened and hope for the future was crushed in many of the communities we serve. It left all of us in a daze, wondering what to do next.

Each year, we predict the trends in the social sector. In 2018, we believe the strongest trend will be an “all-in” mentality around coming together to find solutions through true alliances for change. It means redefining the rules of the game from organization to system and from me to we. This year, we dedicate our 2018 word shifts to ways the social sector can ensure that productive collaboration is part of our everyday toolkit:

  • Inclusivity vs. Monopoly: For almost a century, nonprofits have been battling our social problems alone. Now, there are armies wanting to help – businesses, millennials and baby boomers, to name a few. We need to capture this momentum and have an all-in philosophy. We also now know that it is essential to co-create to find the best solutions. Rather than “owning” something, organizations and individuals should see solutions as community property and work together in higher forms of collaboration to seek the greatest value for all.
  • Eco-Thinking vs. Ego-ThinkingIn our experience, as a sector we still focus on how our own organizations can make a difference (i.e., ego-thinking) rather than on the role we can play to best move an issue forward by working together (i.e., eco-thinking). We all need to start 2018 by asking ourselves, “What is missing from our theory of change and how can we go to the next level through partnerships?”
  • Progress vs. NicenessWe often choose political correctness at the expense of resultsBut, with stakes being so high in the social space, collaborations – especially effective ones – require forthright conversation and debate to achieve the desired results. True change comes from a higher form of communication – a true dialogue that includes a constructive exchange of ideas and points-of-view.
  • Charters vs. MOUsWhen you are starting a collaboration, it is not only important to define what you are trying to achieve, but also how you plan to achieve it. After working on many different kinds of collaborations, we have found that most organizations get half of the equation right (collaboration = activity + behavior). People commit to collaboration for all the right reasons – they want to create better outcomes for clients and the community, and there are many comprehensive lists of activities or conditions to help them. However, the other half of the equation – behavior – is the tricky part. People often differ on a range of behaviors – informal vs. formal relationship, levels of disclosure and transparency, decision rights (consensus vs. majority) and expectations of effort. While having these conversations upfront may seem tedious, it creates a shared taxonomy that will lead to healthier conversations. We believe we need to move past the light version of this (MOUs – Memorandums of Understanding) and create more purposeful partnerships through Charters.
  • Results-Driven Meetings vs. Feel-Good Meetings: Many of us in the social sector have attended meetings that are long and aimless, pertain to complicated issues that are never resolved, and involve individuals with diverse points of view that are never heard. Without planning, these meetings are recipes for disaster. As I like to say, the point of meetings (and plans for that matter) is not to report out, but to build consensus, drive decisions and build collective momentum. If you establish ground rules, create and share a rigorous agenda, and find ways to bond as a team, meetings can provide the grit that leads to figurative polished rocks, which drive results for your collective efforts.


We must work on productive collaborations that address the root causes behind the disasters that make headlines – and give everyone hope that we can co-create solutions for a brighter future for all. If you missed our word shifts from the last five years, please check them out! We welcome your feedback on these or other word shifts. Future blogs will delve further into each of these topics, and, as always, if you loved what you read, pass it on to others.


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