“Change happens at the speed of trust.” I’m not sure who first said it, but that short sentence captures in a nutshell both the promise and the difficulty facing collaborative initiatives.

Promise, because when there is trust between individuals and organizations, they’re willing to work together towards bigger goals and  the opportunity for greater impact. Difficulty, because trust is all too lacking in current systems that require agencies to compete against each other for limited resources.

What makes building trust such a challenge? Let’s think about the different layers of trust that need to be addressed.

Within organizations – Despite the push for greater program accountability, it’s easy to understand why some staff may be afraid to implement performance measures. They may fear that if the numbers don’t look good, their program could be cut – and with it, their job.

Between grant recipients and funders – Take that fear to the organizational level. What agency wants to risk having its funders see that a program is not achieving the expected results? The fear that their funding may be reduced or eliminated is understandable.

Between organizations – What if we start collecting and sharing data community-wide? What if my agency doesn’t look as “good” as another, based on the numbers? (Even if we know there’s a perfectly good reason behind this!) Again, the fear that funder and public support may dwindle as a result is real – and can certainly get in the way of building trust.

Between sectors – Government vs private nonprofit. One field vs another (for example, children vs older adults). Pitted against each other for resources, it’s easy to fall into an “us” vs “them” mentality – not exactly a recipe for building understanding, much less trust.

Between organizations and the broader community – Does the community trust us to live up to our mission, to act in the best interest of those we serve? It’s a two-way street: Do agencies trust the public’s understanding of the issues enough to value the community’s input into their program design?

And that’s just touching the surface of what’s going on in each of these dynamics! The fears that exist in each are a symptom of our competitive culture. But for collaboration to be successful, moving from a culture of competition to one of trust is essential.

Building trust

Sadly, there’s no magic wand that will suddenly create trust where it doesn’t exist. It’s going to take time, commitment and effort, but here are some steps that can help to foster it.

Build a relationship.  No one wants to be contacted only when someone needs something from them. Take the time to make real connections with others. Relationships need to be nurtured… regularly and thoughtfully.

Look for common ground.  Find out what motivates the other. What do they need? How can you support each other? At the very least, you’ll have developed a better understanding for where they’re coming from.

Foster a learning environment.  Make it okay to fail! Think of your work as an experiment… Wouldn’t you want to learn as much as possible about why it did or didn’t achieve the result you expected? Either way, you now have more information to build on, to make course corrections for the future.

Focus on those being served.  So maybe this is a bit too like Pollyanna, but really, if our work is about helping those we serve, shouldn’t we want to know if we’re achieving the desired results? And doing everything in our power – including putting aside our self-interests – to ensure that we do??

Like I said, it will take time, commitment and effort. It will require a culture shift for many individuals and organizations. But the potential reward is worth it!

Moving from competition to trust is one of three culture shifts that I think are needed to support successful collaboration, along with moving out of individual silos to get a systems-wide perspective and moving from a linear to an adaptive way of thinking. My next post will focus on moving from silos to systems.