A Primer for Worldwide Collaborators

Considering a worldwide collaboration? Let decision-making needs determine your structure. After that, it’s all about trust.

Global social sector collaborations can be exciting, and even exhilarating. And when they’re effective, they can result in large-sale sustainable change. But the hard truth is that many either fail or prove to be so fiendishly difficult to operate that they might as well not have been started in the first place.

That’s because the challenges of running this kind of collaboration are numerous, complex, and not easily overcome. Just scheduling a meeting between groups in different time zones can be exhausting; sometimes, the scheduling process can take longer than the meeting itself. Then there are numerous minor cultural differences that must be accommodated, such as adjusting to the pace at which people from different countries are accustomed to working. And these are relatively simple challenges to overcome, compared to others, such as language barriers, differing government policies, and the myriad of issues that can spring from religious and socio-economic differences.

The cause of these difficulties can essentially be summed up with one word: Distance: the physicaldistance between where people are, and the intellectual, emotional, and habitualdistances between different peoples’ goals and methods. (The CAGE Distance Framework, developed by Pankaj Ghemawat at the University of Navarra, IESE Business school in Spain, catalogs these challenges.) The idea that Internet and instant communication have made the world smaller is both ubiquitous and misleading. Yes, it’s easier to exchange information today than ever before. But today’s technologies have not created one global culture. It means that even as more organizations and governments seek opportunities to work across borders to solve social challenges, the challenges surrounding global collaborations loom large.

Over the past 15 years, I have been studying what makes some multi-national collaborative efforts succeed, while others fail. In interviews and conversations with the leaders of more than 100 global collaborations, I have heard in real time about the challenges they face. (To sharpen the messages presented in this paper, I conducted 74 interviews with leaders of 49 different collaborations. And, having served as chair of the global boards of the Social Innovation Exchange, the Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration, and All Out, I’ve experienced these challenges first-hand. I have come to the conclusion that if an effective, one-size-fits-all approach existed, we would have identified it by now.

But I have also found five very different organizational structures that can work well, and have in fact been proven to support worldwide collaboration over the years. For organizations, agencies, philanthropies, and individuals interested in pursuing or supporting global collaborative efforts, selecting the right structure up front is crucial — and for many, it may just be one of these five. In this article, I will describe each structure in turn, but first, it’s important to understand that when setting up a worldwide collaboration, you shouldn’t start by declaring a structure. Before that, you need to consider how decisions will need to be made in order for your work to hum along as effectively and efficiently as possible. The key to selecting the right structure, in fact, is picking the one that best serves your decision-making needs.

Decision-Making Needs Before Anything Else

The critical element of any collaborative structure is its decision-making processes, or its decision-making service. Think of a structure as scaffolding that enables a certain decision-making service. So in order to select the optimal structure for your collaborative efforts, you first need to ask: What sorts of decisions will our collaboration need to make, and where and when will those decisions need to be made? What approach will help us make decisions better, quicker, or cheaper? How will (and how well will) those entrusted with decision-making power serve our organization and our efforts?

Consider the decision-making needs of Medécins San Frontières (MSF), an organization that raises resources in a range of countries to deploy to humanitarian crises, whenever and wherever they arise. MSF needs to be able to make decisions on both the global and local level quickly and efficiently because it deals with emergencies. Its global decisions determine the location, scope, and depth of its efforts. Its local operations must reflect the global will of the national bodies contributing money and people. And yet, those same local operations absolutely needautonomy in their response to critical local needs, such as protecting its staff in dangerous places.

Wikipedia, by contrast, needs far less “local” decision-making. And the Boy Scouts, an organization that works primarily through its many community-based programs, needs more. Each of these collaborations relies on a different structure best suited to its decision-making needs.

The five structures

Here are the five structures that appear to have the strongest track records of success:

The Single Global Body

This kind of collaboration works locally through branches or delegated national bodies, but it generally has one board and one “central” office. It’s best suited to collaborations where most key decisions are global, not local.

Examples include: Mozilla, Lifebox, Earthwatch, Mercy Corps, All Out, SIX (Social Innovation Exchange), and ORAM (Organization for Refuge, Asylum and Migration). SIX, All Out, and ORAM, each have one board and one central entity. SIX is a UK charity, ORAM is a California 501(c)(3), All Out is a New York 501(c)(4). Each organization is global, working on four or more continents; and each is lean, with revenues under $5m per year.

The advantages: A singly global body can focus on core mission and challenges, without triggering much internal complexity. Mozilla’s Firefox flourishes on the World Wide Web, and as such, it can be led easily from one physical base. All Out campaigns, directed from the center, respond to wherever issues arise in the world.

Even some global organizations that comprise more than one legal entity can find that this structure works well for them. For example, Mercy Corps, and Lifebox each have legal entities in both the US and UK, with both legal boards operating as one team, supervising a global chief executive. The key, again, is that the decisions these organizations face are best made from a global vantage point.

The challenges:When a collaboration’s “center” has the dominant culture, it’s hard to ensure that people in far-flung operations feel as if they are an integral part of things. They are vulnerable to feeling disconnected — and eventually dis-enchanted. People who work in a head office (or who are based near an organization’s center, or headquarters) often develop such a familiarity with each other, and with the work, that they can make ungrounded assumptions about others’ experiences without even realizing they’re doing so. They can also develop a sort of “shorthand” in the way in which they communicate that comes across as insider-talk, or jargon, to those who are located far away. When this happens, the people who are based elsewhere in the world can feel left out, or, worse, feel as if they aren’t being heard and need a representative to advocate for them. In such an environment, engagement wanes, and distrust grows, especially if leadership demands loyalty. When the center starts sending a message that sounds like, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us,” then a global collaboration is in trouble.

The Association of National Bodies

This kind of collaboration consists of a group made up of a number of national organizations, with limited global organization.

Examples include:The Scouting movement, the YMCA, and Amnesty International.

The advantages:This structure works best when the collaboration takes place among peer organizations that mostly operate and raise resources nationally and where very few issues are truly global. (In other words, it works best when the associations among members are pretty “loose.”) For example, YMCAs are mostly local organizations. The London and New York YMCA centers can compare notes, but few decisions made by the London YMCA affect the New York center, or U.S.-based YMCAs, and vice versa.

The challenges:When the members of a collaboration are national entities in their own right, it can be hard to set common goals. And when common goals are lacking, executing global work can be complicated. A lack of alignment around goals can make it hard to build trust across members; members find themselves asking, “What was the rationale behind that decision?” and saying, “That may be well and good for them, but it doesn’t make sense for me.”

Unfortunately, one of the ways in which loose associations try to address this challenge is by aligning values, not goals. That may seem like an intuitive solution, but in practice, it nearly always makes it harder to build the trust needed to foster better decision-making. Values can be vague. And trying to align values among different cultures can prove divisive. Discussions can carry undercurrents of “My values are better than yours, which is why I value them;” and “Who are you to judge my values?”

Amnesty International, for example, enables great work around the world, and yet has found itself in numerous situations where such conflicts have placed a strain on peoples’ ability to get things done. Board member Andre Banks commented that issues such as the rights of sex workers used to be decided in each national Amnesty body, and are vigorously debated between national sections.

The Hub and Spoke Approach

This collaboration calls for a global “hub” organization that sits at the center of a loose association of “spokes” — national bodies.

Examples include: the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR).

The advantages: If your collaboration needs to decide how to distribute money from a central source, e.g. from TV rights, then this type of structure may work very well for you. Essentially, itis a combination of the single global body structure and the association of national bodies. The Hub and Spoke arrangement enables strong global decision making, while allowing local organizations considerable autonomy. For example, the IOC picks locations for games methodically and carefully protects the Olympic brand; this hub also sets broad parameters for behavior and practices. The spokes, however, have considerable freedom, within those broad parameters, to set policies and processes as they see fit.

The challenges: When decision-making (including all resource allocation) is centralized, the ground is fertile for corruption. The leadership team at the center may not be inclined to make its practices transparent, thinking that doing so will invite too much unnecessary debate, or waste time. But lack of transparency can cause “spoke” participants to feel disenfranchised, and leading the center to demand loyalty. This behavior can rapidly cycle, fostering discontent and inhibiting the sort of independent thinking that might improve processes. The IOC was compelled to make structural changes after facing serious charges of corruption, and a subsequent investigation, in 2002. FIFA has investigated corruption charges.

The “Friends Of” Structure

A “Friends Of” collaboration is made up of a central organization whose mission it is to support a group of otherwise legally independent organizations (often in other countries) by raising money for those organizations.

Examples include: Wikipedia, Human Rights Watch, and various university fundraising organizations.

The advantages: Like the Hub and Spoke model, this structure enables clear global decision making, while allowing for a great deal of local flexibility. Reduced to its essentials, in fact, the “friends of” approach is essentially theinverse of the Hub and Spoke. In the hub and spoke set up, funding comes into the center (for example, to the IOC) and then is allocated out to various Olympic bodies. Here, money is raised in different countries, and flows to the center or to other “friends of” entities.

The global organization sets the direction, but the local organizations, which support its mission, have a very high degree of autonomy because of their status as independent organizations. Such independence can also protect these “friends” from liability. For example, Wikimedia UK, Wikimedia Deutschland, and so forth, are legally separate from the Wikimedia Foundation, based in the United States (which owns Wikipedia). In this way, each organization is protected if another, for example, is sued for libel.

This structure also makes it easier for the collaborations to operate vis a vis charity and tax laws, which tend to prefer that each charity be regulated in the country of its origin. Oxford University, for example, has Americans for Oxford as a “friend” organization in the United States. Americans for Oxford is a U.S. 501c3 organization, and funnels money to Oxford University. This means that alumni who reside in the U.S. can receive tax deductions when they donate to Americans for Oxford.

Sometimes, a collaboration takes this form because it begins as an effort in one country to address a crisis in another. (Such was the case with HRW, which runs global programs out of its headquarters in New York.) In other cases, it just makes sense, as noted above, to set up this sort of arrangement to protect individual members.

The challenges: As with the Hub and Spoke structure, the central “hub” organization can grow domineering to the point where the people leading and working in “spoke” organizations in other locales feel as though they are constantly on the defensive, or left out. Ultimately, if conditions deteriorate over time, the whole structure can fall apart. Locations that the center aspires to support can become unfriendly, or even “go feral,” with members just working within their own nation or locality.

For example, about 10 years after Wikipedia was founded, the movement had grown to the extent that some of its “friends” were sizeable organizations in their own right, with established track records of success and unique histories. Some of these organizations began demanding more global decision-making power. They wanted the governance of the Wikimedia movement and Wikipedia to be subject to a joint council of all the Wikimedia national organizations. Under that arrangement, the Wikimedia Foundation in the US would have simply become the US organization, working in parallel, say, with the German organization.

While this approach might sound more inclusive or global, it would not have made for better decision-making; instead, it would have unnecessarily complicated the collaboration’s governance structure. Ultimately, to address the dissatisfaction, the Wikimedia Foundation in the US expanded its board from the other organizations to make it more representative.

The Network

A network is a federation of legally independent national organizations that raise resources and run activities in their own countries, usually through franchise arrangements with a central organization.

Examples include: Oxfam, Medécins Sans Frontières,WorldVision, and Save The Children.

The advantages: This approach works well when participants want to form a group of national organizations such that each organization potentially has a different role but all work together to accomplish a shared goal. In a network, decision-making can take into account all members’ assets.

MSF, for example, can draw on the depth of a global team when considering strategic goals, such as how to treat HIV or address other global challenges. It can deploy resources from around the world to respond decisively to global crises, such as an Ebola outbreak. Yet it has managers in charge on the ground, with localized expertise in getting things done as safely and as efficiently as possible.

The challenges: It can be difficult to set goals in a network because the various franchisees, each with a significant voice, may have differing priorities. Decision-making can be a long, slow process when many individual organizations have similar levels of power. And, in a far-flung network arrangement, it can be expensive to engage in the kinds of activities that foster solid relationships among franchisee leaders (such as getting them together regularly for face-to-face discussions).

To seed success, build trust

After deciding on a structure, success turns on trust. Trust is the “glue” that holds a global collaboration together. It has to build among collaborative partners as the structure gets tested — under normal working conditions, and in particular, in times of stress. You’ll know when it’s working: decision-making will be easier. And you’ll know when it’s not.

Sadly, the best intent can sometimes lead to the worst outcomes, as when the legal documents creating some structures are aimed at “retaining control” or “protecting all parties.” (If you start hearing colleagues or partners, particularly at the location that serves as a center, say things like, “We believe in cooperation, not conflict,” or “Our lawyers will develop detailed agreements,” you know you’ve got a trust problem.)

In my work, I’ve found that the most effective worldwide collaborations — no matter their structure — engage in three practices that (whether intentionally or not) build trust. These organizations:

Set clear goals.By this I mean they clearly articulate the reason they exist as a collaborative group, and that goal guides all of the decisions they make.

Doing this will help you bring together people from different cultures, even if, especially if, they have different values (as is often the case). Having clear goals also makes it easier to resolve conflicts because a goal compels people to remember the ultimate impact that the collaboration aspires to have. Clear goals ease decision-making because they provide a solid backdrop against which you can ask and answer a few simple, clarifying questions: How does doing “X” or “Y” help us achieve our goals? Does doing “X” help us achieve our goals more readily or easily than doing “Y?”

Consider the President’s Emergency Program for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), an initiative of the government of the United States. PEPFAR has touched 60 countries, and saved millions of lives through its work in 100,000 locations across Africa. The team that runs the PEPFAR works with governments, NGOs and companies, and includes members with a huge range of cultures and values, not to mention governmental policies.

But its goal is straightforward: to save lives. And all decisions are made with that goal in mind. As Ambassador Deborah L. Birx, M.D., the U.S. Global AIDS Coordinator, and as such, the individual who oversees PEPFAR, puts it, “There are always competing priorities, there is always pressure for ‘flexibility.’ But we build teams by creating a common enemy. The clear goal of saving lives allows team members to trust the motives of other team members, even if they disagree on other important issues.”

As an example, Birx recalled a conflict over needle exchanges. “Some people did not agree with needle exchanges,” she says. “[That’s when we] had to bring people back to the high level shared vision. We are stopping an epidemic.”

Meet face-to-face. Despite amazing recent advances in digital technology, few global collaborations succeed without leaders spending regular time together. So do this even if time and money are scarce. And if meeting in this way does present a significant financial burden, and face time is rare, then don’t waste time looking at slides together when you meet up; dive into deep discussion quickly.

Spending time with others face-to-face helps people form more accurate impressions of others (and their intentions) than they would be able to through emails. And later on, when conflicts arise, or when, say, an email is subject to misinterpretation, these individuals are more likely to give one another the benefit of the doubt. They will extend one another that courtesy because, having spent time together, they will have a better sense of each other’s style, and, more importantly, they will trust others’ underlying intent (unless they have solid reasons not to).

The Social Innovation Exchange (SIX) offers a good example of a network that builds member relationships through face-to-face meetings. Specifically, SIX moves its annual face-to-face meeting to a new location each year, allowing members to learn more about each others’ cultures and build friendships across six continents. The organization’s annual summit has been hosted to date by members in Lisbon, Singapore, Adelaide, Seoul, Vancouver, Mumbai and Bogota.

Greenpeace offers another example. As Paul Gilding, former executive director of Greenpeace worldwide, reflects on the practice: “When I first arrived, I thought the organization was incredibly bloated — people flying around all the time, half our meetings devoted to social time. We met twice a year, usually at a hotel in a location where it’s “off-season,” to keep costs down. But then I realized that this was the glue that held the organization together.”

Global collaborations can also cover a lot of ground during face-to-face meetings of a few days duration that might take months via email and video conferencing. Mark Brown, PEPFAR’s principal deputy assistant secretary, offers an account of PEPFAR’s 2016 Country/Regional Operational Plan (COP) cycle meeting:

“Each year, we allocate resources and agree action priorities in a cycle of Country and Regional Operating Plans (COP).
For the latest (2016) COP cycle, we decided to bring people together face-to-face, to ensure real communication. The WHO had just come out with new guidance, which was a game changer for HIV response. The new guidelines said that everyone who is HIV+ should go onto anti-retroviral medicine, as soon as soon as they know that they are positive. This made our message much simpler: get tested and get medicine if you are positive, instead of get tested, and find out whether or not you are positive, and whether or not you should be treated, now or later. In the old environment it could be difficult to find a person three years after you had told them that they were positive; and when you did find them, they might not yet be in line for any treatment.
But we had to get governments to adapt the current WHO guidelines. By bringing everyone together, we were able to get governments to say yes at an unprecedented rate and pace.
Essentially, we brought all stakeholders together to discuss the science, the policy, and the implementation on the ground. By bringing everyone face to face, we got to a place where people were prepared to be honest. You could talk all day long. This is not like a pro-forma thing: this was about solving problems and making decisions.
The meeting was in Johannesburg in May 2016. We probably had 22 different countries coming through at different times. And at any one time, we probably had about 35 people in the room for each country. What we had was the Minister of Health for the country, the specific global fund representative, the in-country UN AIDS director, representatives from WHO, the US PEPFAR team, the Chief of Mission or their representative DCM, and from our office in Washington the chair, the person who really is responsible. From Washington, we also had all of the implementation agencies. Everyone who was important in terms of making decisions was there together.
For example, for Ethiopia, we had agreement in science and policy, but the government was not ready to move. So we brought people from UNAIDS, WHO, and the Ethiopian government together, to work through all the issues. PEPFAR and Global AIDS were both able to explain and develop best case and worst case scenarios overnight. We showed that this shift truly was affordable. It was not just that we could talk about policy, we could also talk programmatically, about changing delivery of services to make it affordable. This would not have happened over emails, or with phone calls. Without one big meeting, it would have happened would have taken many months.
In total, at any one time, we probably had 300–400 people there, with each room working through issues and figuring out solutions. It gave us an opportunity to share across countries. PEPFAR as a program had never really done that before. We used to have COPS approved on phone calls. Reflecting, though, there is no substitute for what we were able to do. There were some big changes that we needed to make as a program. We really helped countries achieve. It would not have happened without being able to sit face to face, to sit with the government themselves, and with civil society, too.”

Every successful global collaborator meets face-to-face, regularly and consistently, with peers and colleagues. I’ve not met the exception yet.

Make curiosity the new loyalty. Think of having curiosity as encouraging people to bring their best, rather than demanding that they limit themselves to a set of approved actions. The best global collaborations nurture and value curiosity. Curiosity drives increased understanding among members; it encourages people to persist in building relationships despite language barriers and the inconveniences of time zone differences. It fosters innovation, by motivating organizations to ask questions, learning more about each other’s strengths, weaknesses, and aspirations. It inspires loyalty because it engages people.

Wikipedia, the world’s largest encyclopedia and the fifth most popular site on the web, is perhaps one of the best examples of an organization that encourages — in fact, relies — on curiosity to build the trust that drives its work. Wikipedia’s culture isn’t the one often imagined by naïve outsiders: harmonious cooperation without fractious competition. In fact, Wikipedia volunteers engage in conflict all the time with very competitive ideas. Without their curiosity, the organization’s “product” couldn’t be trusted; in fact, it probably wouldn’t exist.

Build on Others’ Experiences

The most successful worldwide collaborations I’ve seen have picked one of the five structures based on their decision making needs (or have evolved into one of the five structures, based on decision-making needs), and then have worked like fury to build and maintain trust. There’s precedent here to guide new collaborators, and those who take advantage of the experiences of others will be in a good position to accomplish what they intend.

PS: The Red Cross

Most every time I engage in a conversation with someone about global collaborations, someone brings up the Red Cross. “Isn’t the Red Cross the ultimate example of a good structure?” they ask. “Why don’t you use the Red Cross as an example?”

Here’s why: The Red Cross is an amazing and complex global collaboration. True. The Red Cross has been around for many years, and is certainly a household name; you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who hasn’t heard of the Red Cross, operating locally, and in some far-flung location half a world away from any and everyone’s “local” community. It does a world of good. Also true.

But the Red Cross is also unique among global collaborators, and as such, its structure isn’t useful for comparative purposes. Originally founded in 1863, it consists of the International Committee of the Red Cross, the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, 190 national Red Cross and Red Crescent societies, and numerous local societies, as well.

Plus the Geneva Convention of 1864 gave the Red Cross unique authority under international humanitarian law to act as a neutral party in conflict and monitor conditions of prisoners of war and non-combatants. That authority protects its brand, and gives it great legitimacy. However, that legitimacy has also led to irrevocable complexity.

It’s worth noting that Médecins Sans Frontières, also known as Doctors Without Borders, was founded in 1971 in part because of dissatisfaction with the response of the Red Cross in the Nigerian civil war.

Finally, the Red Cross has also suffered numerous trust-eroding scandals. It’s not an exemplar on that front. For example, in 2001 after 9/11 in the USA, the Red Cross came under question for holding on to money raised for victims of 9/11. And in Australia after the 2004 tsunami, the organization again opened itself to criticism because of money raised for disaster relief raised for other purposes. In each case, the complexity and opacity of the organization confused goals, and stifled honest curiosity, until problems became too large to hide.