I’d love to write a post about the joys of collaboration – the myriad ways you can build and expand your organization, increase your influence, and help more people by working with others. But that’s not always the case. Collaboration can result in things moving slower, in losing focus, in losing autonomy, and gaining personal drama and animosities that get in the way of what you want to do.
How you collaborate is much more important than whether you collaborate. Sometimes, especially when starting out, it can be more important to focus on what you can do yourself, rather than trying to find people to work with. Some of my favorite ideas have come to naught because I tried to find collaborators from the very start. I love the social element of collaborating – of having the instant feedback, the support and comfort that comes from knowing that you’re not the only person investing themselves in something. But unless the people you’re trying to work with share your passion, your vision, and a sense of ownership, they’re more likely than not to drop out, lose interest, or fail to produce what you need.
Certainly, here in New York City, I find no shortage of people who care as much about HIV-Prevention in the young gay community as I do – I even find plenty of people around my age who share similar ideas about what new techniques can be applied to the fight. But for every new person who becomes involved, I lose one who has found a more alluring project in another area – or, more commonly, discovers that they’re already stretched too thin to make the commitment they want to. In talking with more experienced not-for-profit hands, I’ve learned this is hardly a unique experience. Unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to pay someone to work on your start-up idea, you’re going to have a hard time Tom Sawyer-ing your way to the getting your project off the ground!
The work of making an advocacy project go from idea to reality is often a lonely one at first. You have to have a clear idea of what you want, and what you can get from each person you bring your idea to. You can’t rely on people to deliver when they say they will – you have to be prepared to do the work yourself, or see things skid to an awkward halt. As a rule of thumb, when starting out, take whatever someone says they’ll bring, and cut it by a third. They say they’ll help you hand out fliers? Don’t count on them doing more than forwarding a few emails to friends. They want to be part of your core planning group? Don’t count on them being there unless their schedule is open, and drinks are provided. They say they’re going to quit their job and devote 80 hours a week to help you do this? Maybe they’ll show up for your launch party.
Once you get something real going, when you’re producing articles and press, hosting events, getting grants – then, things will be easier. People want to be involved in something that makes them feel like they’re accomplishing something, they’re getting recognition, and they’re doing something that helps build themselves up to achieve their goals. At that point you’ll need to start choosing carefully how, and with whom, you collaborate. If you’re successful, you’ll have to learn to tell between those who want to work with you, and those who just want to leech off your success. But that’s not such a bad problem to have – it means you’ve accomplished a lot.