Practicing the Collaborative Process

Collaborations are built on partners who have a vested interest in the goal or outcome. Head Start staff members who seek to form or be a part of a collaboration will find this material useful as it reinforces the key stages of the collaborative process. A shared vision is important. It brings about passion and generates synergy among its partners.

The following is an excerpt from Community Partnerships: Working Together.

How can I support the Head Start community in the collaborative process?

I can act on the knowledge ...

Key Concepts

[These] key concepts ...serve as a knowledge base for the collaborative process include:

  • Call for Action. A call for action is an issue, problem, concern, or need that ignites people to act.

  • Collaborative Partners. Once a decision to act is made, potential partners must be chosen, recruited, and brought to the table. Basically, anyone who has a stake or role in the call for action, or who can be part of the solution, is a potential partner.

  • Building a Base of Common Knowledge. Creating a climate of mutual respect, acceptance, and trust is crucial to getting the collaboration off to a good start. Partners accomplish this when they take enough time to learn about each other and the individual organizations, and have opportunities to disclose self-interests - to discuss what is important to them and what they need from the collaborative.

  • Shared Vision. A shared vision is a clear picture of what you hope to create; it is essential to sustaining a collaborative effort. The vision focuses on future possibilities - not current problems - and leads partners toward actions and desired results. A shared vision generates energy, motivates partners, and tells everyone where the collaborative is going.

  • Strategic Planning. Strategic planning is a comprehensive planning process that provides the framework for collaborative action. This five step process involves 1) defining the collaborative's mission; 2) assessing the environment and the collaborative's capacities; 3) establishing well-formed goals; 4) exploring and selecting strategies; and 5) developing a plan of action.

  • Evaluation. Ongoing evaluation tells the partners how well they and their strategies are working and guides decisions on changes or modifications to the collaborative effort. Evaluation can be a relatively simple process, with partners measuring effort, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Background Information

Attention to choosing and engaging collaborative partners, developing a base of common knowledge, and defining a shared vision are essential to developing a strategic plan - the framework for action. This module is devoted to practicing the first three stages of the collaborative process: 1) getting together; 2) building trust and ownership; and 3) strategic planning. This module also guides participants toward taking action, the fourth stage of collaboration.

Getting Together 1

Initiators of a collaborative effort usually come together due to a call for action or a vision of how community life could be better; they reach out and share their vision in ways that attract others to become their partners. Initiators tend to choose partners they know, are aware of, or have access to. However, there are other selection criteria to consider:

  • Capacity. The scope of a collaborative effort often dictates the number of needed partners. However, too many partners can cause difficulties in scheduling meetings and in giving everyone the chance to speak and be heard. Sometimes, collaboratives with many members subdivide into smaller groups with each group assigned to a specific task. Ideally, a collaborative, or its sub-groups, should have no more than 15 members. At the same time, the collaborative door must always be kept open for new partners.

  • Governing Bodies and Policy Groups. In a collaborative, it is important to involve persons who have policy-making and governing authority as partners or informed stakeholders. Getting organizations to buy into the collaborative effort occurs more readily when policy-makers and members of governing boards are part of the collaborative process.

  • Potential Opponents. We tend to avoid people who oppose us or who make us feel uncomfortable. However, if they possess skills or resources the collaborative needs to succeed and are in a position to obstruct a collaborative effort, it is important to invite them to the table and point out the advantages of working together. Often, potential opponents become critical allies.

  • Community History. The history of community organizations is another important consideration in choosing partners; that is, who has worked well together in the past and who has not. During the start-up phase, a history of positive working relationships helps a collaborative come together.

  • Variety in Skills. Collaboratives need people who collectively have a variety of skills. Initiators should look first to the skills they bring to the collaborative effort and then to those of potential partners. Important skills to look for include leadership, planning and facilitating, resource development, evaluation, and communication (writing and speaking).

  • Territory. Initiators of collaboratives tend to invite people from disciplines or organizations similar to theirs. However, the information, skills, resources, community ownership, and support that collaboratives require may come from a variety of sectors:

    • Businesses and Business Organizations. The involvement of large corporations, small businesses, and business organizations often brings expertise in information management systems, marketing techniques, and financial strategies - valuable help that often proves vital to a collaborative. Other possible benefits are the loaning of staff to work on a specific activity or the use of office space or equipment.

    • Consumers. These are the people who will be most affected by the collaborative's initiatives. If a collaborative's efforts are to improve services to children and families and achieve broad-based community support, the people who live in the collaborative's targeted neighborhoods and/or use services must be engaged as partners.

    • Elected Officials. Elected officials are usually supportive of a collaborative's desires to improve community conditions or the effectiveness of services. For collaboratives pursuing wide system change, the support of elected officials can help to bring the right players to the table, create the right conditions for action, and leverage resources from public sectors. Elected officials may be partners, or they may be part of the network the collaborative chooses to keep well-informed. In deciding when and how to involve elected officials, initiators need to weigh a number of factors, including the officials' political agenda as well as potential risks and pressures.

    • The Media. Decisions to involve the media in the collaborative should usually wait until the collaborative is ready to go public. Media attention is alluring, but if the collaborative is unsure of the message it wants to convey to the community, newspaper and television coverage can sometimes backfire.

    • Natural Community Leaders. All communities have natural leaders who are the voice for underserved populations, low-income families, and minority populations. Their participation as partners helps ensure that the collaborative's mission responds to the full range of community expectations and needs. Many natural leaders also bring power to the collaborative due to their charisma, persuasive speaking abilities, visibility, and base of community support.

    • Private Providers, Non-Profit and Grassroots Organizations. This sector brings to the collaborative 1) experience in developing effective services and resources and 2) the support of private citizens. Many organizations in this sector have well-developed volunteer networks and useful community contacts.

    • Public-Sector Organizations. Public agencies and organizations bring major resources into a community. Thus, they bring legitimacy and visibility to a collaborative, expand the possibilities for supporting larger numbers of children and families, and provide linkages with federal and state agencies.

Building Trust and Ownership 2

Once potential partners are identified, attention turns to building trust and ownership by engaging them in the collaborative, building a base of common knowledge, and developing a shared vision of what needs to change. In the most effective collaboratives, partners take time to understand each other's organizations and self-interests. It is important to remember that once partners make a joint commitment to collaborate, basic ground rules for working together must be reexamined and revised and resources need for collaborative planning must be identified.

  • Engaging Partners

    Recruiting the right partners for a collaborative effort often requires more than invitations to initial or exploratory meetings. A number of steps may be necessary to lay the groundwork for participation. Thus, initiators of a collaborative must be prepared to reach out to potential partners and get them engaged. Handout 5 provides some strategies for engaging partners in the collaborative effort.

  • Building a Base of Common Knowledge

    Building a base of common knowledge means working to understand self interests and personal similarities and differences. Self-interests are powerfully motivating and can work for a collaboration when partners openly discuss, "What is in this for me? My organization? The people I represent?" Each partner has something to gain from participating: influence, money, prestige, contacts, career advancement, goodwill, and so on. The more partners speak openly about self-interests, the stronger the chances for building trust and achieving a win-win outcome for all.

    Knowing where partners stand in terms of personal similarities and differences also helps to build trust. For example, when planning initial meetings it is helpful to find out what partners need to feel comfortable or what traditions are important to them. Including time during meetings for partners to talk candidly about their cultural backgrounds and values; previous experiences with collaboratives; the resources they bring to the collaborative (e.g., expertise, resources, connections); their views on meeting procedures; and their interpretation of vague terms helps create a respectful, supportive, and accepting collaborative climate.

  • Developing a Shared Vision

    Simply stated, a vision is a clear picture of what you hope to create. 3  For collaborative partners, developing a shared vision is a critical juncture. Each partner is likely to come to the table with a different picture. Knitting the different pictures into a vision that captures the essence of the collaboration takes time and a lot of listening.

    A shared vision is essential to sustaining a collaborative effort. It focuses on the possibilities for children and families to have a better life - not problems - and leads partners toward actions and desired results. A shared vision generates energy and motivation in partners and tells everyone where the collaborative is going.

Strategic Planning 4

Strategic planning is a comprehensive planning process that provides the framework for collaborative action. Strategic planning involves five steps that can be revisited by partners at any time. The steps include: 1) developing the collaborative's mission statement; 2) assessing the environment and the collaborative's capacities; 3) establishing well-formed goals; 4) examining and selecting strategies; and 5) developing a plan of action.

  • Step One: Develop a Mission Statement

    In this step, the shared vision that brought the partners together is refined and developed into a mission statement. A carefully crafted mission statement captures the shared vision (the direction), unique purpose (what you want to achieve), and the values and beliefs (the rationale) of the collaboration. The mission statement charts the collaborative's future direction and establishes the basis for strategic planning decisions. Examples of mission statements include:

    • Every child will grow up healthy, be secure, and become literate and economically productive. Youth Futures Authority, Savannah-Chatham County, Georgia.

    • To make Racine the nation's most youth-friendly community, every member of the community will be personally involved in supporting and guiding Racine's children as they move from infancy to adulthood. Racine, Wisconsin, Community Coalition for Youth.

    Mission statements focus on possibilities; they do not include the how-to's for achieving the results. The following questions can serve as guides for preparing a mission statement:

    • Does our mission statement describe what we will accomplish and for whom?

    • Is the scope of work (how big, how many, how much) suggested in our mission statement?

    • Does our mission statement convey our vision and a unique purpose? Is the purpose connected to, but different from, the missions of our individual organizations?

    • Is our mission statement easy for everyone to understand?

  • Step Two: Assess the Environment and the Collaborative's Capacities

    This step requires 1) an environmental analysis and 2) a capacity assessment. An environmental analysis involves finding out about forces external to the collaboration, and their potential impact on the collaborative. For example, a collaborative working to coordinate services for children with disabilities would want to study agency policies on service eligibility, local funding streams, and federal, state, and local laws.

    A capacity assessment engages partners in an examination of the collaborative's ability to accomplish its mission, in light of its internal strengths (e.g., skills, talents, advantages, resources, and opportunities) and limitations. Failure to conduct an accurate and thorough capacity assessment can cause a false sense of security among partners. The capacity assessment points out the collaborative's strengths, as well as what needs to be done to make the collaborative stronger.

  • Step Three: Establish Well-formed Goals

    Goals are specific statements of what collaborative partners intend to do; they are indicators of the change partners want to achieve and serve as measures for evaluating a collaborative's progress and for holding partners accountable. Long-term goals point to the results partners hope to see in two to three years or even farther into the future. Short-term goals focus on more specific and immediate results and help to keep partners motivated and enthused. The following questions serve as criteria for well-formed goals:

    • Does the goal suggest a positive outcome, rather than a decrease in a problem? (Achievements - not problems - are the focus of well-formed goals.)

    • Is the goal realistic? (Unrealistic goals cause many collaboratives to collapse.)

    • Is the goal measurable? (If not, partners will have no way of knowing whether they are making progress.)

    • Is the goal stated in clear and concrete terms? (The language of a well-formed goal is specific and understandable to everyone.)

    The following are examples of goals set by collaboratives working to change and improve community service systems:

    • To increase employment by 20 percent;

    • To increase high school graduation rates by 10 percent;

    • To establish a respite care resource for families of children with disabilities; and

    • To provide children's books free to low-income families with infants, toddlers, and preschoolers.

    Goals are subject to revision as new partners join a collaborative, as unexpected events unfold, or as the collaborative journey takes a change in direction.

  • Step Four: Examine and Select Strategies

    Once goals are defined, collaborative partners must decide on the strategies for achieving them. Therefore, in this step, partners take an inventory of possible strategies and choose those that are most likely to produce the goals within the constraints of their resources. Partners should always compare the strategies to their mission statement to ensure consistency.

  • Step Five: Develop a Plan of Action

    In this last step, an action plan is prepared; it maps out the steps partners will take to implement the chosen strategies. For each action, the plan specifies which partner or partners are responsible, the time frame for completion, accountability indicators, and anticipated costs. Actions are the partners' steps for moving the strategies forward. They may include getting letters of commitment from membership organizations, drafting interagency agreements, revising agency policies and procedures, developing a communications or promotional plan, joint agency training, grant writing, or fund-raising.

Taking Action

Taking action, the fourth stage of the collaborative process, involves implementing the plan of action developed by the partners to achieve their mission and goals. Sometimes, before going full scale with the collaborative initiative, partners decide to do a pilot project. The results of that test or project are measured and evaluated by the partners to identify any changes needed in the initiative or action plan.

For example, an initiative designed to provide young, first-time mothers with parenting support and education might be tested out in a neighborhood, with results showing that the mothers' participation in social activities was much higher than in educational activities. Expansion of the initiative into other neighborhoods would take the participation finding into account, perhaps by making the activities for mothers both social and educational.

Taking action demonstrates the deepening commitment of partners to the collaborative. It is a time for partners to do what is necessary to realize the results of their hard work and careful planning. With measures for determining the action plan's progress in hand, partners have a means for evaluating the initiative's success. Along the way, partners may discover the need to revisit earlier collaborative stages or strategic planning steps. Collaboration is rarely, if ever, a static process. Partners must always remain open to change and be ready to respond to new developments and evaluation findings.


Evaluation tells partners how well they and their strategies are working and guides decisions on changes or modifications to the collaborative. While evaluation by outside specialists may be preferable, much information can be obtained through low-cost self-evaluations.

Ongoing self-evaluation does not need to be complex. Finding out what's working and what corrections might make things work better can come from a relatively simple evaluation that includes asking questions on effort, efficiency, and effectiveness.

Next Steps: Ideas to Extend Practice

  • Develop a Collaborative Resource Library

    [Select a Resource Directory]. decide which organizations you will contact for information or technical assistance and which publications you will order or borrow from local libraries. Collect resource materials for Head Start staff, such as:

    • Local demographic and census data;
    • KIDS COUNT reports on your state or community;
    • Community assessment data and reports;
    • A list of individuals or groups who provide consultation, training, and/or technical assistance to collaborative organizers and groups;
    • Descriptions of community organizations that are potential collaborative partners;
    • Information on local foundations and contact persons; and,
    • Descriptions of collaborative partnerships that have formed in other Head Start programs or communities.

  • Support Parents in a Collaborative Effort

    Talk with Head Start parents individually or in groups about forming a collaborative around a common concern or need. Get interested parents together to explore possibilities for initiating a collaborative effort, or joining an existing one. Offer to serve as the group's mentor throughout their collaborative journey. Along the way provide guidance or training on the challenges of collaboration, including such topics as: selecting the right partners, holding effective meetings, avoiding sandtraps, and creating a conflict resolution process. To enable the parents to be active collaborative partners, provide/arrange for practical supports such as child-care, transportation, meeting space, membership rosters, etc.

  • Visit People Already Involved in a Collaborative Effort

    Set up a time to visit and talk with people in your community or other communities nearby about their collaboration-building experiences. Discuss the difficulties and successes they experienced along the way. Ask for suggestions and tips on starting a collaborative, selecting and recruiting partners, and developing a shared vision.

  • Conduct a Consumer Focus Group 5

    Invite Head Start parents and family members, as well as representatives of the community, to participate in the focus group. Possible questions for the focus group include:

    • What services or resources do you and your children need most?
    • What challenges or barriers do you experience when you seek services or resources?
    • Describe your most positive encounter with a community agency or organization.
    • Describe your most negative encounter.
    • If you could change one part of the way children and families are served now by the community, what would it be?

    To encourage parents and the broader community to participate in the focus group, reach out to them by offering child-care and transportation and by selecting a neighborhood meeting location where they will feel at ease. Assure them that their comments are confidential, or not linked specifically to them. Above all, make sure they know that expressing negative views about Head Start or any other community agency or organization will not affect their good standing or their receipt of services, assistance, or support.

    After the focus group, analyze discussion results and plan how you will initiate a call for action.

  • Take the Strategic Plan to Action

    Make arrangements with your strategic planning team (i.e., the team formed during Activity 4-4 or 4-5) to continue meeting until your plan of action is ready for implementation. To get ready you may need to:

    • Invite other key collaborative partners to join your team;
    • Review the strategic planning steps and incorporate the ideas and suggestions of new partners, as decided upon by the group;
    • Discuss the resources needed to implement your action plan and strategies for obtaining them;
    • Build resource strategies into your action plan; or
    • Identify and list steps for monitoring and evaluating the action plan's implementation.

1 Adapted from Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank with Gelareh Asayesh, Together We Can: A Guide for Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Service (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).

2 Adapted from Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank with Gelareh Asayesh, Together We Can: A Guide for Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Service (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).

3 Judith Chynoweth and Barbara Dyer from Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank with Gelareh Asayesh, Together We Can: A Guide for Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Services (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).

4 Adapted from US Department of Health and Human Services, Strengthening Homeless Families: A Coalition-Building Guide (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1996).

5 Adapted from Atelia Melaville and Martin Blank with Gelareh Asayesh, Together We Can: A Guide for Crafting a Profamily System of Education and Human Services (Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Education and U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services, 1993).

"Practicing the Collaborative Process." Community Partnerships: Working Together. Training Guides for the Head Start Learning Community. HHS/ACF/ACYF/HSB. 2000. English.

Last Reviewed: June 2009

Last Updated: February 20, 2015