Successful Collaborations: Three Rules and Lessons Learned from a Lima, OH Project

Definition of "collaborate"Few community development projects can succeed without funding support and—ideally, successful collaboration. In Lima OH, a group of university and public/private sector partners had been loosely formed based on a two-year pilot research project led by Knowlton School working with OSU Lima and the City of Lima Land Bank. By fall 2017, the group had expanded to include Extension among a team of university researchers representing three academic departments and a dozen community-based organizations, including the City of Lima Land Bank. The groundwork had been laid to move beyond the research phase of the project with the group coalescing behind a general plan to utilize vacant city-owned land for a food systems intervention project.

Collaborators

With a loose collaboration and a general project in mind, the group decided to seek out an OSU Connect and Collaborate grant to design and implement the project. The challenge had begun to organize and formalize a successful collaboration behind one project with very specific parameters. The research team started by inviting stakeholders back to the table to begin writing the grant and planning the implementation project. Over the next year, with the aim of congealing a collaborative group to reach consensus on the project, a location, and partner commitments, researchers followed three rules resulting in (mostly) success. Our general rules and lessons learned follow.

Rule #1:  Establish a communications plan.

At an initial October 2017 stakeholder meeting, we set the stage by establishing a communications plan, and sticking to it. After a review of the existing research project and an overview of the grant expectations, a communication plan was discussed and agreed to. The communications plan included regularly scheduled or as-needed face-to-face meetings that would be announced by e-mail at least a week ahead of time. The meetings would keep partners up to date with the grant process but also provide ample opportunities for input. They would be scheduled in the evening, include food and generally last two hours. An e-mailed summary of the meeting discussion and action steps would follow shortly after the meeting took place. One-on-one time was frequently needed with some partners to work through tasks or answer questions. Finally, partners expected full transparency about issues or concerns.

Rule #1 helped to build and retain trust among the collaborators. Trust was essential for partners to reach a consensus on the project. Lesson learned:  Partners are on the hook to attend every meeting, or send a representative. When one stops showing or communicating, anticipate a problem, then reach out to find out what it is and work to correct it. In one instance, our response to a no-show was slow, and we almost lost an important partner!

Rule #2:  Clarify expectations up front.

Anyone who has been involved with the Connect and Collaborate Grants Program knows that the program leverages university teams aligned with public/private sector partners to address challenges, and the partners have to be all in. So, rule #2, which applies to this grant or any successful collaborative project, requires teams to clarify expectations up front. Partners are expected to do more than just meet; they need to come up with what their organizations can commit to, whether it be matching funds, in-kind time, or other resources, and then put it in writing. This expectation is easier said than done. Partners need to know what is expected up front and be reminded along the way. No surprises!

Rule #2 kept everyone accountable and on task. Lesson learned: Verbal commitments can be different than written commitments, and the written ones are usually not as exciting! Get written commitments in draft form so they can be reviewed and agreed on before formalizing the final commitment. That is, give development of commitment letters more than a couple days at the end of a project…allow for at least a week or more.

Rule #3:  Be flexible, prepare for change and potentially, difficult discussions.

Even the most well laid out plan can (and will!) change, so teams must be flexible. 30 research team conference calls, 8 stakeholder meetings and 4 community events later, our project looked different, was located on a different site, included a new partner, and involved an entirely new component that took us down a new funding path.

Rule #3 made possible an improved project, stronger commitments and greater potential for sustainability. Lesson learned: Change doesn’t have to be a negative, it can actually help strengthen a project. In order to get there, though, difficult discussions had to take place and one partner was almost alienated entirely.


Nancy Bowen is an Associate Professor & Extension Field Specialist, Community Economics.

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