When I lived and worked in Pueblo, Colorado, as a nature center director I had the opportunity to participate in a community collaborative planning group that really produced for all of us. I have written about it before in blogs and in our book, Put the HEART Back In Your Community.
Too often collaboration is driven by one government agency or organization. Sometimes it is a mandated process to involve others. Often that does not really feel like collaboration. It feels more like, “They wanted to say they had listened to stakeholders, but they don’t really care.” True collaboration among stakeholders has a very democratic feeling about it. In Pueblo, representatives of diverse interests met monthly to share ideas, leverage grants, plan joint projects and provide support for any applications made. It resulted over many years in creation of the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk of Pueblo (HARP).
In 1993, I worked for Tennessee Valley Authority at Land Between the Lakes (LBL) National Recreation Area as Manager of Research and Innovations. Managing the Biosphere Reserve (BR) Program was part of my duties and that included the creation of a BR Cooperative with social, environmental and economic stakeholders. We convened meetings regularly and I quickly heard the suspicion of other stakeholders that TVA would dominate the agenda. They were very used to government control and collaboration sounded like a ruse. It was not, but the dynamics of change soon led to LBL being transferred to the U.S. Forest Service and the cooperative collapsed before accomplishing anything.
I think collaborative planning works best when you see it as an opportunity to build a stronger organization or community with no agenda of control. You can be a catalyst for getting the key stakeholders together just by hosting a breakfast or lunch once a month. As soon as you exert CONTROL in some way, you are likely to lose the people who might otherwise participate.
Any time you submit a grant or proposal for funding with half a dozen or more organizations working together, you are more likely to be funded. When a grant requires matching funds, one partner may have access to money while another provides technical skills, such as GIS maps or landscape architectural drawings. As a nonprofit nature center director, I ended up being the grant writer for our group.
In Pueblo we did not include the for-profit participants that would have brought even greater strength to the table. We had city, county, and state governments and multiple nonprofits involved but could and probably should have invited the Chamber of Commerce and economic development interests that had their own collaborative groups.
One of the great benefits of a collaborative effort is the opportunity to develop partnerships and package services together to create more holistic experiences. Lodging, food, transportation and attractions like zoos, museums, aquariums and nature centers can create experiences that might appeal to visitors more than figuring out the logistics piece-meal.
A collaborative planning group could also work on a collaborative interpretive plan that unites the community or multiple partners behind a central message and community experiences. Too often we work alone when we could be working together with community stakeholders who might all gain from working together.
Some group or individual has to be the catalyst. Invite your logical collaborators to a meal and meeting. Bring them together around a chance to work on a challenge or grant together. Success in this effort is intoxicating. Once you land money or do a project together, you will most certainly want to do more.