Try these six tips for collaboration success

It started out like any other relationship - common goals, shared interests, and a desire to work together through good and bad times. Soon they were disenchanted - accusing each other of not being equally committed and not assuming their responsibilities.

Although this story sounds like the paperback novel you enjoyed on this beach this summer, it is actually a description of what can happen if a women's health group doesn't properly set the stage for a successful collaboration.

In today's world of shrinking resources and reimbursement constraints, one good way to provide community health programs is to work with other organizations.

The advantages are numerous, says Carol McNeil, MSEd, BSN, director of the Health Center for Women at Arnot Ogdon Medical Center in Elmira, NY. "You get a chance to go outside your four walls and let people see your involvement and your services for themselves," she explains.

Collaborations also give you access to grant funds, says McNeil. "Most funding organizations will not grant your project money unless you demonstrate that you are working with other groups in the community in order to avoid duplicating services," she explains.

Working with others on a group project requires some planning and preparation for a successful relationship, McNeil advises. She relies upon the following steps to ensure success for a collaborative effort.

1. Set specific, written goals.

A key to starting the group in the right direction is to take time to discuss goals and expectations, says Jeri Amann, LCSW, LMFT, executive consultant to Tanner Women's Center in Carrolton, GA.

"It is important to talk about goals and responsibilities and to get everyone's ideas," Amann says.

This conversation not only produces the written document that guides the group, but it also gives everyone a chance to develop the trust and respect needed for a group effort, she adds.

2. Understand your payoffs.

When you enter a group project, be sure you know what you want to gain from the relationship. Funds, extra people to help with the program, and other resources such as office space or printed materials may be contributed by different members.

Amann participated in planning a tennis tournament to raise funds for the local American Cancer Society chapter, and the payoff was increased visibility within the community.

3. Define the leadership.

Make sure the group designates leadership. External facilitators can be helpful in forming a coalition, but the group can set up leadership in different ways. Leadership can rotate throughout members of the group, or different functions can be divided among members so no one person carries more of the load than he or she can handle. This is one issue that needs to be decided up front to avoid confusion, says McNeil.

4. Demand commitment.

All group members need to make it clear what level of commitment they can give to the project and what resources they can bring to the table. Do what you say you will do, Amann emphasizes.

5. Communicate in all situations.

The group needs to talk through all situations, even difficult ones, says McNeil.

"My coalition struggled with a problem with one of the members that was difficult and uncomfortable, and we kept putting off dealing with it until we realized that it would not go away by itself and could jeopardize our grant," she explains.

If the group had confronted the problem as soon as there were signs that the group member was not fulfilling her organization's part of the program, the group could have moved on to other activities more quickly, she adds.

6. Ensure fair representation.

Make sure your group represents the market you are serving, says McNeil. If your program is targeted to teens, include agencies that serve teens, she suggests. By including people who know how to best reach teen-agers, her teen pregnancy prevention program is able to reach the people it's serving, she explains.

Know when to leave

By evaluating group objectives and determining your own center's benefits from participating in the program, you'll be able to decide whether participation is right for your organization, says McNeil.

"Look at the objectives and determine if they are still in line with your organization's objectives," says McNeil. She also suggests looking at your own job priorities, available resources, and other activities in which you or your center participate.

If careful evaluation of these factors shows that continued participation in the group effort is not worthwhile, resign with grace, she advises.

"The best collaborations are dynamic and change to meet needs of the community," Amann says. "If continued participation doesn't feel right or if the group's mission doesn't match your organization's mission, it is better to leave on good terms that ensure positive perception of your center by other group members."