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Aging Action Initiative The Ins and Outs of a Perfect Collaboration

By Aaron Alarcon-Bowen
IHSS Public Authority Executive Director

One word that we hear a lot in the social service field is “collaboration”. It is almost expected that, in order to reach our goals and performance measurements, public and nonprofit leaders must find ways to collaborate with other agencies (or even other sectors). In light of that, very little is said about how to form the perfect collaboration that will get things done. During my more than two years of tenure as the executive director of the IHSS Public Authority, building partnerships has been at the top of my priorities. Here’s some of the things that I have learned during this journey:

  1. The first element of a good collaboration is finding common ground. Doing this is not as simple as it sounds: at times, it is necessary to do a thorough inventory of each agency’s mission and vision. This might take time. Have brainstorming sessions that include direct staff. Ask questions. Spend time analyzing the daily activities of both organizations until you find an area of overlap. The collaboration IHSS Public Authority developed with Dominican University is a great example of how collaboration is a process. We started our partnership two years ago; in order to continue finetuning our ongoing relationship, every semester we hold meetings and focus groups that include the University’s faculty and students, IHSS Public Authority staff, and even some of our consumers.
  2. Once a common interest or a common goal is determined, it is important that both agencies enter an agreement as equals. Collaborations involving one agency as the “less powerful player” and the other as the opposite will see them struggling to agree on tasks and who is in charge. Regardless of the size of the agency, an equal footing based on respect and mutual understanding is a must. When I reached out to College of Marin President Dr. Coon to launch the first ESL class offered by the Public Authority, it was intimidating to approach such a large and respected institution. However, Dr. Coon made sure that our partnership was based on respect and fairness.
  3. Being equal partners in a collaboration does not mean that both agencies will do exactly the same task or that they both will bring equal amounts of resources to the table. It means that both agencies are working equally hard to make sure that the common goal is reached. For instance, if an agency is more capable to provide financial resources than the other, then the less financially solvent agency must be creative to match the same level of involvement, even if what this agency brings to the table is not money. Communication is the key.
  4. Lastly, it is important to always keep an open mind. Not all collaborations are supposed to fix “all the world’s problems”. And that’s okay. Sometimes partnerships should be kept for networking purposes in hopes that something with more substance emerges at a later time. When IHSS Public Authority first started partnering with the Mexican and Salvadorian Consulates in San Francisco with the goal of recruiting care providers, our expectations were too high and, in all honesty, unrealistic. After two years, we adjusted our involvement and participation and as a result, we have maintained a collaboration that has helped us extend our network and our presence in the community. Another example is our collaboration with the YWCA. Though both agencies have the goal of finding employment for consumers, our logistics are different. Regardless, we were able to find a small, overlapping area where we could collaborate in a manner that was mutually beneficial.

Don’t be scared! Knock on doors. The worst thing that could happen is being told “no”. I promise you that you will find not only one but many “yeses” down the road.