Home >Opinion >Columns >The questionable virtue of social sector collaborations

Virtues for individuals and axiomatic goods in a society are quite familiar to all of us. Honesty, empathy, fairness, justice and more. We will not wade into this philosophical territory, which is as tricky as all others. The notion of such axiomatic goods carries over into the world of organizations. Clarity of purpose, being effective in achieving this purpose, and the capacity to be effective are all axiomatic goods or virtues in an organization. For brevity, I will now only use ‘virtues’; the list of such organizational virtues is long.

Unlike for individuals and society, the list of virtues for organizations changes over time much faster. Being socially responsible is prominently in this list today, and was not so 30 years ago. Stability was there in the list back then, and is no more. Innovation, speed and openness are all considered virtues today for business organizations. Rarely is there complete agreement on all virtues. Nevertheless, there is usually a dominant consensus.

Social sector organisations have their own notion of what is virtuous in their world. In addition to the matter of purpose and efficacy, their list includes resilience and connectedness-to-the-ground. Internal democracy is another such. But it is an interesting one because it is unattainable in any organization because of the very nature and construct of organizations. Honest ones don’t profess to be democracies, they want merely to be participative and inclusive. But too many seem to adopt a hypocritical pretence of democracy and tout it as a virtue.

The most curious case is that of collaboration as a virtue. It should be obvious that collaboration in itself cannot be a virtue. But this seems to be lost in the fog of wishful thinking. The challenges of our socio-political sphere are gravely intractable, the financial backers of these organizations are fickle, and executing anything day after day for years extremely hard. Perhaps this is why collaboration seems to have become a hoped-for panacea.

Every few days, I get an email from someone who wants to collaborate with our Foundation. In almost all such cases, I am able to respond quickly that such a collaboration would not be useful for us. A few people appreciate a fast and clear response. Many of them are offended. Because they believe that I am denigrating a virtue, an axiomatic good within this sector.

Numerous meetings, conferences and conventions are held for further collaborations in the social sector. In the deluge of enthusiasm for collaborations, the actual dearth of real and effective collaborations is ignored, and the causes are brushed aside. The solace gained from the idea of collaboration as a panacea seems to have become more important than any actual collaboration.

Collaborations can be useful or useless, or irrelevant, and in some cases they may even be problematic. These sentiments mark me as a collaboration-sceptic nearing heresy. Let me list a few other issues associated with consecrating collaboration as a virtue.

First, the meaning of the word ‘collaboration’ has been overextended. Collaboration is when two or more organizations genuinely work together. Let’s take an example. A state department of education may start a programme with some people from within the department and from some civil society organizations. This group could together develop textbooks, and then train government schoolteachers on these textbooks. Unlike this true collaboration, a grant-making organization giving financial support to a non-governmental organization (NGO) is not collaboration. Similarly, development work around a factory by an NGO funded by a business is not collaboration, it is outsourcing of work. An NGO training a village community to develop their watershed is not collaboration either. But many such situations are described as such in the hope of catching the stardust of that virtue. In effect, making the meaning of the word so nebulous as to make it useless.

Second, too often, clear-headed assessments of collaboration costs are drowned by the desire to embrace this consecrated virtue. This is true of basic costs such as investment of management energy, and even more so of some deep long-term costs. Let’s take two examples. Collaborating with another organization limits the development of your own capacity on what the other organization is strong in. While that may be the very reason for entering a collaboration, it is equally critical to assess whether that capacity is so important to your long-term goals that you must actually develop it in-house and avoid it getting stunted by a collaboration. Second, forging a collaboration implies accommodation of various kinds. The line between accommodation and ‘mission drift’ is not very clear. Because it is never a big bang, but a series of whimpers. Over time you realize, “Yeh kahaan aa gaye hum, yunhi saath saath chalte." Where have we reached, together?

Third, collaborations are the hardest to pull off where they are most desperately needed. Collaborating to restore the forest-rights of tribal communities is very hard, much more so than joining hands for a watershed. It is to face and resist power that collaborations are most needed. Collaboration for courage is more important than collaboration for capacity, but far more capricious.

India wouldn’t be independent without collaborations in civil society. We should use that history, instead of becoming bhakts of the gospel of collaboration.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and also leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd.

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