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You Should Be Collaborating With Your Competition: How 'Collabotating' Can Improve your Bottom Line and Promote Democracy

When the United States was founded, a set of ideals were enshrined that included fundamental rights such as liberty, free speech, freedom of religion, due process of law, and freedom of assembly. The founders, after rebelling against a monarch in England, were not looking to recreate systems of absolute power. Instead, the founders knew the importance of disagreement, diversity, and discussion. They worked to create a nation and system of government where people could argue and work together.  


Yet, while the founders challenged some forms of power, they upheld many others, including hierarchies of gender, race, and ethnicity. Such hierarchies undermined their values and weakened democracy itself.  

 

These failures have led some to give up on the founder’s ideals and values altogether, opting to work by any means to arrive at political equality. Meanwhile, others use the protections of these fundamental rights to uphold the same hierarchies that undermine our ideals.  

 

As I celebrated the Fourth of July with my friends and family in our nation's capital last week, I found myself reflecting on these founding values, the ongoing failure to live up to them, and the possibility that we could lose them entirely in the struggle. That loss would be catastrophic, particularly for people whose rights were not guaranteed by the founders, and who have spent the last 250 years gaining this imperfect access.  

 

I haven’t given up on the promise of classical liberalism and deliberative democracy, but we have a long way to go. Pluralistic mindsets can help us navigate these difficulties, by granting space for both civil disobedience and transpartisan civic engagement, and by helping nonprofits expand their impact. 

 

But what does this look like in practice? As I reflect on these ideas, I found myself asking:  

 

  • How do you work with those that you also compete with? Is it possible to have a productive and impactful collaboration with a competitor? 

  • What does it mean to share the same goals with your competitors but have different ideas about how they can be achieved?  

  • What could a collaboration with a competitor look like? How do you even start? 

 

One of the key theories in pluralistic work is that the more people who are trying to solve a complex problem, in a variety of ways, the better. That’s easy enough to say, but in practice, it means that many actors in the same field who regularly compete for resources, attention, or market share, often must collaborate.  

 

I am hardly the only one talking about this idea. Templeton Religion Trust uses the language of “constructive competition” to mean competition conducted in a loving, friendly spirit under free and fair conditions. I also recently heard a great word for the phenomenon of collaborative competitors from John Harper, CEO of FSG: collabotators. I love this "collabotators” frame for both the idea of deliberative democracy, and the smaller work of solving a single complex problem.  

 

While competition remains a real risk to organizational thriving, a whole field of work might be improved when competitors build cross-sector relationships, act as trustworthy peers, and share some learnings. Because, as a social change field expands with collaborative effort, available market share, resources, and attention grow as well. That’s a pretty sweet return on investment. 

 

So, I don’t know about you, but creating social ties with deep relationships that don’t just assume trust—but create it—is the work I want to be doing.  

 

Identifying an organization’s collabotators and exploring how to work in collaborative competition with each other might be the key to expanding your program’s growth and impact. This is work I can help you achieve, through landscape mapping, strategic planning, and convening support.  

 

Together, we can expand what’s possible for your organization. 

 

If you’re interested in exploring this idea further or starting a conversation about what it would mean for your organizational growth to better understand your collabotitors, please book time to connect with me.  

 

And if you disagree with me – reach out so we can talk about that too!  

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