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Collaborating to solve public problems: What's your idea?

Take a natural resource like water: We depend on it for growing our food, drinking, recreation, industrial processes, generating electricity and many other uses. In Minnesota, 40 percent of the water bodies evaluated don't meet water-quality standards. Cleaning up our state's water is a multifaceted and complex issue that no one organization can address on its own. Citizens, farmers, industry, academia, government, environmental advocates and other stakeholders, if they work in partnership, can collectively see barriers and identify ways to solve the problem — better together than alone.  

A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to hear Charlotte Brody, now the director of chemicals and green chemistry for the Blue Green Alliance, speak about working in partnership to address links between environment and public health. I furiously took notes during her presentation, trying to capture her coalition-building experiences and lessons learned. A long list of her words of wisdom on a yellowing piece of paper is now taped up in my office. One thing she said the morning of her presentation really stuck with me: "As a society, we're natural silo builders. If you choose to bring unusual partners together to work on an issue, you should know that it is like walking uphill with 30 or 40 pounds on your back. Coalition building is hard work."


Carrying this metaphorical heavy load is all too familiar. My organization, the Minnesota Environmental Initiative, works exclusively in a collaborative model to solve environmental problems with those in business, nonprofits and government. Even though coalition building is hard work, it's also inspiring — to learn what forces are at play for partners, to find common ground, and to achieve things that could never be possible working alone.

For nearly two decades MEI's annual Environmental Initiative Awards program has recognized and honored others statewide who work to break down silos and solve environmental problems together. Each year, 15 finalist projects are selected and from the group of 15, six winning projects are recognized. Past winners have included projects like Minnesota Schools Cutting Carbon, a coalition of students and teachers from 100 public high schools — colleges and universities statewide working to save energy, reduce their carbon footprint and explore renewable energy options — and Arlington-Pascal Stormwater Improvement project, a community-wide partnership that addressed drainage and flooding challenges while improving water quality in St. Paul's Como Lake.

A new collaborative community
MEI established the awards program to inspire others to replicate successful projects and work in partnership. We know environmental work in Minnesota is far from over, and continued opportunities for collaboration abound. In an effort to share environmental success stories, and to connect Minnesota problem solvers, MEI has teamed up with InCommons, a new collaborative community in Minnesota that connects people online and offline to share knowledge and resources for solving community problems. As we gear up for our 18th annual Environmental Initiative Awards celebration (on May 26), MEI and InCommons have launched a discussion about putting partnerships into action. Paul Aasen, commissioner of the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, has kicked off the discussion asking, "How do we all do better together for Minnesota's environment?"

MEI has lessons to share with close to 20 years of experience building partnerships. As we've learned through our awards program, so do people all over Minnesota. So, we want to know:

What are the biggest challenges you face working in partnership with many people or organizations? How did you overcome the challenges? What advice would you share with someone who wants to build a new partnership? Together we can do better, and we'll look for your ideas and answers to these questions on the InCommons website.

Emily Franklin is senior manager of development and communications for Minnesota Environmental Initiative in Minneapolis.

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Comments (1)

The biggest challenge in building partnerships in the public organizations in which I've worked has been finding key people who are psychologically healthy enough to gather with equally healthy others with whom they might not initially agree for the purpose of examining the evidence of problems, and possible solutions to those problems, then designing and implementing the most workable, cost effective solutions to those problems.

This is a challenge because there are so many people (on both conservative and liberal fringes) whose psychological dysfunctions severely limit their perspectives to the point of limiting not only what they will consider, but what they CAN consider and whether they can use facts and evidence to form and reform their own perspectives.

Sadly these MOST dysfunctional people also tend to be the loudest and most strident and can shut down any attempt to examine evidence and design evidence-based solutions because that evidence and those solutions contradict what they, based on their dysfunctions, believe to be the only acceptable and workable solutions to the problems at hand (even when those solutions can be shown not to work).

But even if you are lucky enough to find a collection of pyschologically healthy, functional people with which to form a coalition, addressing problems requires at least four groups of people,

dreamers - those who dream big and wide about what's possible,

discerners - those who ferret out what things might be possible from among the dreams of the dreamers,

designers - those who are able to design the means of accomplishing what the discerners realize might be possible,

-and-

doers - those who actually carry out the designs of the designers.

I suppose with all that in mind, it's a miracle that ANY coalitions can be effectively formed and produce useful, workable results.

Far too often, especially where leaders have their own dysfunctions in play, one of the four types dominates a group or an organization with the other types being unappreciated, or seen as useless if not dangerous and entire organizations get stuck in whatever rut their founders were or current leaders are stuck in, are unable to adapt and change and grow, and, thus, eventually die.