I recently had the opportunity to participate in an online webinar organized by Merits, an international, peer-reviewed, open-access journal covering all aspects of people at work. The webinar centered around the release of Merits’ upcoming special journal issue, “People—the Next Sustainability Frontier.” The webinar coincided with World Population Day, an important United Nations observance highlighting the urgency and significance of ensuring sustainability for our global population, which is fast approaching eight billion people. One remarkable aspect discussed during the online webinar was the demographic shift our world is experiencing. For the first time in history, there are more individuals over the age of sixty-five than there are children aged five and below. This demographic shift, known as population aging, reflects increasing life expectancy and declining birth rates and carries significant implications for society, economics, and healthcare. The consequences are wide-ranging, including economic challenges due to increased demand for healthcare and long-term care services. It can also lead to a shrinking labor force and changes in family structures, with potential strains on intergenerational relationships and caregiving. Governments and organizations must plan for the impact on healthcare, social services, and workforce sustainability, developing policies to support older adults and ensure their well-being. Effective long-term planning is essential to address the various dimensions of this demographic transformation. This shift, along with multiple factors, has led to the sustainability of the world’s population becoming a matter of critical importance.

I believe that the nonprofit sector possesses the capacity to be the driving force behind enacting substantial change when it comes to tackling the diverse array of societal and global challenges we face. From the sustainability of humanity and the environment to population movements, human trafficking, and the establishment of educational facilities in marginalized rural areas, or population aging, nonprofits will be at the forefront, playing a pivotal role in bringing about transformative solutions. These multifaceted challenges require innovative and holistic approaches, and the nonprofit sector is well-positioned to address them. Nonprofit organizations, driven by their missions and dedication to social impact, possess the flexibility, expertise, and community connections to make a significant difference.

Furthermore, as a catalyst for collaborative endeavors, I firmly believe that radical collaboration is the differentiating factor, the X-factor, or the game-changer that propels us toward driving impactful change. Radical collaboration involves challenging the status quo, questioning assumptions, and exploring new possibilities. It is highly innovative and transformative in its approach, breaking away from traditional or conventional methods. For instance, radical collaboration goes beyond traditional forms of cooperation and coordination. It emphasizes all stakeholders’ active participation and engagement, transcending hierarchies and power dynamics. Radical collaboration creates an environment where diverse voices are valued and decision-making is inclusive and participatory. It encourages co-creation, collective ownership, and a shared sense of responsibility for driving change.

One example of radical collaboration in the nonprofit sector is the Global Polio Eradication Initiative (GPEI). The GPEI is a partnership between various organizations, including the World Health Organization (WHO), Rotary International, UNICEF, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The GPEI was established in 1988 to eradicate polio worldwide. This initiative brought together governments, international organizations, civil society, and philanthropic entities to collaborate on a global scale. It utilized a radical collaborative approach by pooling resources, expertise, and strategies to tackle the complex challenges associated with eradicating a highly infectious disease. Through the GPEI, partners coordinated vaccination campaigns, surveillance systems, community engagement, and advocacy efforts. They shared knowledge, best practices, and innovations to address the unique needs and contexts of different countries and communities affected by polio. Over the years, this radical collaboration has significantly reduced polio cases worldwide. The number of polio-endemic countries has drastically decreased, and the initiative has come close to achieving the ultimate goal of global eradication. The GPEI is a powerful example of radical collaboration in the nonprofit sector, demonstrating how diverse organizations and stakeholders can unite around a common cause, share resources, and leverage their collective strengths to address complex global challenges effectively.

Radical collaboration offers several benefits that can contribute to more effective problem-solving and transformative outcomes. Here are some key advantages:

  • Enhanced creativity and innovation: By bringing together diverse perspectives, expertise, and ideas, radical collaboration fosters a rich and dynamic environment for creativity and innovation. Different viewpoints can spark new insights, alternative approaches, and breakthrough solutions that might not have been possible through individual efforts.
  • Increased resource sharing and efficiency: Radical collaboration allows for the pooling of resources, including financial, human, and technological resources. Sharing resources can lead to increased efficiency and effectiveness in addressing complex challenges. It helps avoid duplication of efforts and encourages allocating resources where they are most needed.
  • Synergistic partnerships: Radical collaboration often involves forming partnerships and alliances among organizations, institutions, and individuals. These partnerships create synergies that leverage the strengths and capabilities of each collaborator. By combining complementary skills and resources, collaborators can achieve greater impact and outcomes than they could achieve individually.
  • Expanded knowledge and learning: Collaboration brings together diverse knowledge, expertise, and experiences. Through radical collaboration, participants can learn from one another, exchange insights, and build on collective knowledge. This shared learning can lead to new perspectives, improved decision-making, and the development of innovative strategies.
  • Increased stakeholder buy-in and ownership: Involving stakeholders in collaborative processes fosters a sense of ownership and buy-in. When stakeholders actively engage in decision-making and problem-solving, they are more likely to support and champion the outcomes contributing to long-term sustainability and the successful implementation of collaborative initiatives.
  • Greater impact and systemic change: Radical collaboration can potentially drive significant and systemic change by addressing root causes, systemic barriers, and interconnected challenges. It enables a comprehensive approach that tackles complex issues from multiple angles, leading to transformative outcomes and long-lasting impact.

It is important to note that the benefits of radical collaboration can vary depending on the context, the level of engagement, and the commitment of participants. However, when approached with an open and collaborative mindset, radical collaboration has the potential to unlock innovative solutions and bring about positive change.

Although radical collaboration may not be achievable in your particular situation, let us explore the benefits of collaboration in general. Here are some advantages worth considering:

  • Enhanced problem-solving: Collaboration brings diverse perspectives, expertise, and resources together. By pooling knowledge and skills, stakeholders can generate a more robust range of ideas and innovative solutions to address complex problems. This collective intelligence can lead to more effective problem-solving and decision-making processes.
  • Increased efficiency and resource optimization: Collaboration allows for the sharing of resources, including financial, human, and material resources. By leveraging these shared resources, communities can achieve economies of scale and reduce duplication of efforts. The increased efficiency and resource optimization in addressing community problems maximizes the impact of limited resources.
  • Synergy and complementary strengths: Collaboration encourages the constructive collaboration of different stakeholders, such as NPOs, voluntary action organizations, CBOs, governments, government agencies, community organizations, businesses, and individuals. Each participant can contribute their unique strengths, perspectives, and resources to create a more comprehensive and integrated approach to problem-solving. By combining efforts, the collective impact can be greater than individual contributions.
  • Empowerment and inclusivity: Collaborative problem-solving involves stakeholders directly in decision-making. It fosters a sense of ownership and active participation, giving individuals and groups a voice in shaping their community’s future. Collaboration promotes inclusivity by ensuring that diverse voices, including marginalized or underrepresented groups, are heard and considered.
  • Strengthened social bonds and trust: Collaboration builds social capital and strengthens the social fabric of a community. Working together towards common goals fosters relationships, trust, and mutual understanding among participants. It can break down barriers and promote cooperation, strengthening community cohesion and resilience.
  • Learning and capacity building: Collaboration provides learning and skill development opportunities. Stakeholders can acquire new insights, perspectives, and expertise through interactions and knowledge sharing. Collaborative efforts also facilitate the transfer of best practices and lessons learned, enabling the community to develop its problem-solving capacity over time.
  • Sustainable long-term impact: Collaboration promotes a long-term perspective in problem-solving. By involving multiple stakeholders and addressing the root causes of problems, collaborative efforts are more likely to generate sustainable solutions. Building consensus and collective commitment also increases the likelihood of successful implementation and ongoing support for initiatives, ensuring their continued impact.

In 1989 Gray defined collaboration as a “process through which parties who see different aspects of a problem can constructively explore their differences and search for solutions that go beyond their own limited visions of what is possible” (p. 5). And while there is no explicit definition of collaboration, conventional thought suggests a communicative approach (Healey, 2006); the exchange of information (Himmelman, 2001); deliberation in face-to-face interactions (Innes & Booher, 2010); individual empowerment, bridging social ties, and synergy (Lasker & Weiss, 2003); and building social capital, trust, and shared goals (Clary, 2022) are elements of collaboration. Gray identified a compelling reason for collaborative efforts by highlighting that collaboration allows parties with differing perspectives to come together and explore their differences constructively, ultimately seeking solutions that surpass their limited visions of what is possible.

Collaboration offers a powerful approach to addressing the intractable, wicked problems of our times, locally or globally. In collaboration, communities are empowered to address these challenges effectively, ultimately leading to positive social, economic, and environmental outcomes because community matters.

In Community,

Dr. Pat

Patricia A. Clary is a columnist who advocates for strategic community impact agendas to solve complex societal issues through collaboration, convening leadership, and governance. Connect with Dr. Clary at patriciaclary.com, LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/pat-clary/, or Facebook at PatriciaAClaryPhD. ©2023 All Rights Reserved.

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Patricia A. Clary, Ph.D.

Columnist Community Matters / Collaboration / Convening Leadership / Governance / Systems-Thinking