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The benefits and pain points of collaboration

Bryan Mercer, Gillian Robbins, Caitlin Seifritz and Kate Rivera May 12, 2016 Category: EventLongMethod
As we’ve said many times before, collaborations can be tricky. But when they work, the organizations involved are often better off.

Last night, four social impact leaders came together in our new offices on the 12th floor of the Curtis Center to discuss the art of collaboration. Bryan Mercer of Media Mobilizing Project (MMP) presented the group’s new community-infused documentary project; Gillian Robbins and Caitlin Seifritz of the Free Library explained the newly created Business Resource Innovation Center (BRIC); and Kate Rivera of Urban Affairs Coalition spoke about the KEYSPOT program.


UAC Program Manager Rivera said her organization is itself rooted in collaboration between local government, the business community and nonprofits. Its KEYSPOT internet access program exemplifies that model by bringing together over 50 partner organizations — including MMP — to launch 79 KEYSPOTS to attempt to “bridge the digital divide,” she said.

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Rivera adheres to the Stanford Social Innovation Review’s conditions for collective success and strives for “continuous communication” by getting coffee or drinks with partners and establishing early relationships to help smooth over small bumps in future collaborations.

All partners need to share a vision, but “the devil is in the details,” she said: Specific priorities might vary, and therefore, more negotiation might be needed.


Librarians Robbins and Seifritz spoke about the recent merger of the library’s Business, Science & Industry Department and its Regional Foundation Center that focuses on accelerating social entrepreneurs and nonprofit professionals. As we reported in January, BRIC offers mentorships, one-on-one consultations, research assistance and more.

It took a lot of cooperation to make this merger work, they said. It includes a fully integrated staff and eventual new physical space — libraries are “the OG coworking space,” Robbins quipped — and nonprofits and social enterprises operate differently and need different resources.

Partnerships are key when uniting disparate programs, such as when they don’t know how to help with someone’s business-related question. (As they admit, they’re librarians, not business experts.)

They’re also open to suggestions for the work-in-progress center.

“We want to know what you want to know,” Robbins said. “We want to be a new service model.”


MMP is made up of community organizers who believe in the power of media to build networks and change our city, according to Mercer, the organization’s executive director.

He shared the trailer to MMP’s new social justice film series, “Groundwork: Justice in the Birthplace of America,” which features shorts about local people who might normally be excluded from telling their stories but are engaging in social justice work, such as undocumented immigrants advocating for their right to get driver’s licenses and fast food workers advocating for a $15 minimum wage.

The films depict not just victories and protests, “but the process behind how a person becomes a leader in community organizing,” Mercer said. “We think about how we can lift up the fight, not just the plight.”

MMP collaborated with community organizers and trained media professionals for its Movement Media Fellows program, which teaches community organizing and video skills. The goal of the documentaries, Mercer said, is to empower people to document their own stories — an inside-out perspective on their struggles, rather than outside-in. To do that, MMP needed to build relationships with those communities by asking them what they needed, rather than prescribing solutions.

What are the biggest challenges of collaborations?

  • Robbins and Seifritz — At the Free Library, there’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape that needs to be crossed before decisions are made because they technically work for the city, the librarians said.
  • Rivera — There were so many different partners involved in the KEYSPOT project that it was difficult to solidify their overall focus, she said. It’s important to have good personal relationships with partners that can trump those tricky challenges. “If you’re acting in good faith … then you’re more likely to be able to navigate that,” she said.
  • Mercer — As a KEYSPOT partner, it was important to communicate why certain requirements were necessary within the project — for instance, why it was so important that his report be turned in at a certain time, he said. With universal understanding, accountability could be kept.

When beginning conversations, how do you choose appropriate partners?

  • Mercer — In making “Groundwork,” MMP needed to consider how the values of other organizations matched its own, and whether those orgs were already working in the subject areas featured in the films, he said.
  • Rivera — To solve the problem at hand rather than simply improving its conditions, bring in people “all along the supply chain,” she said — nonprofits as well as computer labs as well as orgs that address the issue of internet access on different levels. “Be intentional” and collect different perspectives of an issue, she advised.
  • Robbins and Seifritz — Because they didn’t know much about the inner workings of businesses, they realized it’s important to educate yourself about what you need, what you want to accomplish and who can help, Robbins said.

What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your collaborative process that you know now?

  • Rivera — Federal funding paid for KEYSPOT initially, but when that went away, the program had to scramble to keep itself afloat. She realized that the involved groups had all come together in the first place because the opportunity presented itself in the funding, yet they had no cohesive plan for long-term sustainability. Those conversations could have been held sooner.


Media Mobilizing Project

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