The Basics of Collaboration : Guide to Effective Partnerships

To access a PDF version of this resource please complete the following form. Your information helps to ensure that we are meeting the information needs of our clients.

Table of Contents


The Basics of Collaboration presents a general overview of best practices for groups or individuals who want to collaborate with others, and is targeted to people involved with economic development in rural Ontario.

The resource may be useful for:

  • Rural not-for-profit organizations (e.g., agricultural societies, business improvement areas, chambers of commerce)
  • Municipal councillors and staff
  • Local or regional economic development organizations, committees, development corporations, and community business leaders
  • Small businesses (e.g., stores, restaurants, farms)

While this publication has a rural Ontario focus, the underlying concepts can be applied in many settings.

Rural Ontario is unique

When working on a project that pertains to rural Ontario, it is important to be aware of its unique circumstances:

  • Rural Ontario is vast and has a low population density. This makes services, such as transportation and high speed internet, challenging or non-existent in certain areas.
  • There is a significantly large senior (65+) population in rural areas with consistent youth outmigration.
  • Each rural community is different and it is important to be aware of their unique characteristics.
  • There is a high rate of volunteerism and entrepreneurship.
  • Many groups and organizations in rural areas have limited staff.

Introduction to Collaboration

What is it and why is it beneficial?

Collaboration is a process where groups or individuals partner with others and share a common purpose. These relationships are mutually beneficial.

As collaboration require some degree of effort, collaborators need to gain something from the process. Groups and in- dividuals will be stronger, more resilient and efficient when they collaborate because they will:

  • have a unified voice to influence policy and bring change
  • have access to creative, financial, technical and human resources
  • limit duplication
  • share knowledge
  • be able to accomplish more
  • be mutally beneficial

Facts about collaboration

According to a research study conducted by The Ontario Trillium Foundation, collaboration has four key characteristics:

  • There isn't a formula
    • Every collaboration is unique. To be successful, collaborators need to be able to take risks with new strategies, and evolve based on the circumstances.
  • Collaborations should not be forced
    • The most successful collaborations were created because collaborators identified a shared need. They should not be formed because a grant application requires collaboration.
  • Trust is vital for success
    • To build authentic relationships, there needs to be genuine trust so that all collaborators know they are being treated honestly.
  • Achieving significant impact requires risk, time and resources
    • In order to address complex issues, you need to be innovative. Being innovative requires a certain level of risk, as the direction the project will take is unknown.

Barriers to collaboration

Groups and individuals do not collaborate because they fear losing control. As a result, they are too protective and are unwilling to work together, especially those who have had negative experiences in the past. They fear that their information might be misused or their organization might not exist in the future. Collaboration does involve risk, especially when it is more complex. To overcome these fears, potential collaborators need to determine:

  1. solutions to minimize risk, or
  2. whether the potential benefits of the collaboration outweigh the risk

Are you or your organization ready to collaborate?

Willing to ...

  • be trusting and trustworthy
  • partake in joint-decision making
  • be transparent about your or your group's expectations, issues that emerge or any concerns
  • have something to contribute to and gain from the collaboration
  • be open-minded
  • share successes and failures

Where do I start?

  1. Find groups or individuals doing similar work to collaborate with
    • In many instances, it is just a matter of reaching out to them. In other instances, there might be groups or individuals with whom you have a history of conflict. In this case, you will need to first resolve your grievance (Appendix A).
  2. Figure out similarities and how you could collaborate
    • Discuss what work each of you is doing, and where you could help one another.
  3. Figure out what type of collaboration is appropriate.

If your collaboration is stalling, consider a neutral third party to facilitate the process.

Importance of community engagement

It is important to involve the grassroots during a collaborative project. Although working exclusively with organizations might be more efficient, directly engaging the community provides a true sense of whether your project is capturing what people actually need, and shows respect for community members. In addition, you may gain evidence to support your project. With luck, your efforts will be rewarded with community buy-in as your project evolves. If it is not possible for you to engage directly, an alternative would be to engage with those who interact with the public on a regular basis.

Types of Collaboration

Collaboration can range from sharing information to developing a solution for a systemic issue. The best way to categorize these types of collaborations is on a continuum, which is displayed in the diagram below.

A diagram to show the best best way to categorize these types of collaborations is on a continuum

Text version

This resource will focus on simple, coordinated and complex collaborations.

Simple Collaboration

Simple collaboration is informal, short-term and requires limited commitment. The main intention is networking and sharing information, as well as developing mutual trust by building a relationship. The benefit of simple collaboration is that it is a good way to know what other groups are doing in the community. In addition, it provides a good stepping stone to building trust, creating potential for future collaboration on more complex issues. This form of collaboration limits risk because collaborators continue to make decisions independently and keep their resources separate.

What is required for simple collaborations?

  1. A common agenda
    • Have mutual agreement on the purpose of the collaboration.
  2. Open and continuous communication
    • Be willing to share information - to build mutual trust

Example of simple collaboration

A county, the local BIA and Chamber of Commerce came together on a quarterly basis to share their efforts towards economic development. The collaborators not only established a trusting relationship, but were able to better align their efforts based on the information shared.

Coordinated Collaborations

Coordinated collaboration is appropriate when working on small projects. This collaboration is more formal, requires sharing of resources, and involves a measure of both risk and trust. However, collaborators retain their individual entities and do not create a new organization. The benefits of coordinated collaboration are that resources are not duplicated and the impact of the work reaches a larger audience, creating more significant change.

What is required for coordinated collaborations?

  1. Common agenda
    • Have mutual agreement on the purpose of the project and how it will be executed (actions, responsibilities).
  2. Open and continuous communication
    • Keep all collaborators informed throughout all stages of the project to ensure consistency and inclusion
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities
    • The contributions of each collaborator add to the project at hand, rather than impede it.
  4. Shared measurement
    • Have consistent and shared measures and evaluation among partners for project-related activities.

Example of coordinated collaborations

An agricultural advisory committee brought together tourism and economic development groups, small businesses and farmers to organize a tour for municipal officials to see economic development initiatives in the community, and to share successes and barriers. This collaboration led to changes in municipal by-laws to allow for greater retail space at on-farm wineries.

Complex Collaborations

Complex collaboration, commonly referred to as collective impact, is a cross-sector approach to solving complex social issues that are too large for one organization to address in isolation. Since the collaboration is across multiple sectors, every collaborator uses their niche to contribute towards the solution, which leads to a noticeable impact.

What is required for complex collaborations?

  1. A common agenda
    • Every collaborator should have a shared vision for change, including a common understanding of the issue and a joint approach to solving it.
  2. Shared measurement
    • There needs to be consistency in data collection and measuring results in order to confirm that efforts remain aligned, and to ensure that collaborators hold each other accountable.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities
    • Collaborators must ensure that their efforts contribute to, rather than impede, the collective plan of action.
  4. Continuous communication
    • Being open with one another is vital to building trust, assuring mutual objectives, and creating motivation.
  5. Backbone support organization
    • Due to the scale of the initiative, a dedicated organization with staff is required to serve as the backbone for the entire initiative, helping coordinate participating organizations and agencies. It is possible, and in many cases better, to have an existing organization take on this role, instead of creating a new one.

Examples of complex collaborations

Growing world crops in Ontario

As Ontario becomes more ethnically diverse, there is a growing demand for ethnic produce, such as Chinese eggplant and okra. A research centre recognized the potential market and opportunity for Ontario. However, they knew they could not do it alone. A collaboration was formed with government agencies, seed companies, grocery stores, grower associations, produce distributors, post-secondary institutions, as well as ethnic associations and farmers. Each collaborator focused on their expertise, e.g., researching the feasibility of growing these world crops in our climate, encouraging farmers to grow them, and marketing the crops. This project has led to boosting the economy across the province, especially for farmers who have an innovative, competitive product.

High-skilled jobs in rural areas

A rural county was experiencing major skill and labour shortages. The lower and upper tier municipalities, as well as local small business centres, post-secondary institutions, newcomers and youth came together to form a workforce development partnership. This complex collaboration helped workers improve their qualifications, enabled students to make better career decisions based on labour market information, and integrated skilled newcomers into the community. People gained employment as a result.

Which collaboration is most appropriate?

This tree will help you determine which type of collaboration is most appropriate for you:

A diagram of a decision tree to that will help you determine which type of collaboration is most appropriate for you

Text version

Defining success

Your collaboration should identify what success means. Otherwise, there is no way to know whether the time, effort and resources dedicated to the collaboration were worthwhile. Here are two steps to define success:

  1. Look at your common agenda and determine your end goal.
    • For a simple collaboration, the goal might be to share information about regional transportation.
    • For a complex collaboration, the goal might be to retrain and attract youth in your county.
  2. Come up with performance indicators to measure whether the collaboration was successful in achieveing its purpose.
    • Appendix C provides more information on performance measures and the programs and resouces offered by the Ministry that could further assist you.


Appendix A - Conflict resolution

Process :

  • This could be done informally or formally, depending on the size of the group. This could be a casual conversation, or split into groups with flip charts. Please use your discretion. Remember, resolving conflict takes time.
  • This exercise is to help facilitate groups or individuals who are not working together due to a history of conflict. It is important to approach this process with an open mind and a willingness to put aside past grievances. Again, resolving conflict takes time, and will require further efforts after this exercise.
  • The first step is to arrange a meeting with the other party. Depending on the size of the organization, participants might range from a specific individual to a group of people. You may want to consider having a neutral facilitator trusted by both collaborators.

Time : one hour

Here are four questions that should be addressed. Please keep in mind that it might require a lot of discussion to answer these questions.

Questions :

  1. What do we have in common?
  2. What is preventing us from working together?
  3. How can we overcome our grievances?
  4. How can we support each other in what we have in common?

Appendix B - Setting a common agenda

Process :

  • A successful coordinated and complex collaboration requires finding a common cause among the partners. This tool will help facilitate that process.

Time & Resources : 30 minutes per question, Flip chart paper and markers

Step One : Vision for the collaboration:

  • What brought us together?
  • Issues we are seeking to address
  • Trends, opportunities and threats
  • Guiding principles we share

Step Two : Based on the information above, write down your three major priorities (feel free to modify).

Priorities :

1. ______________________________________________________________

2. ______________________________________________________________

3. ______________________________________________________________

Step Three: Based on the priorities above, write down a list of what is required to achieve the priorities.



Appendix C - Other resources

Below is a list of resources and programs offered by the Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs that might be helpful once your collaboration has been formed.

Performance measures

It is important to have measures to determine whether your collaboration was efficient and effective. Furthermore, these measures help participants make informed decisions, create accountability and build consistency in the desired outcomes. In order to develop your performance measures, you need to: assess your agenda, build consensus on the goals of the collaboration, create a model of goals to achieve and how you plan to achieve them, and develop a list of performance indicators. We offer a program called "Performing Measures Resources" or "PMR". To learn more visit the webpage.

Economic Development Analysis Resources

Analyst is a web-based tool that combines multiple national data sources to provide data on Ontario regional economies and workforces in a format that is easy to access, understand and use. This tool is useful because it demonstrates the need for the area. To learn more, visit the Economic Development Analysis Resources webpage.

Community Economic Development 101

This is a free interactive workshop where your collaborators can learn the basics of economic development, and take away practical tools to help your community develop and implement an economic development strategy. To learn more, visit the Community Economic Development 101 wepage.

Strategic Planning Resource Manual

Strategic planning is a process that helps groups work towards a desired future by focusing energy and resources on shared goals. This is a useful process to consider once your collaboration has been formed. We have a step-by-step guide that leads groups through strategic planning. To learn more, visit the Introduction to Strategic Planning Resource Manual webpage.


Collaboration - partnerships with other groups or individuals who have a mutual purpose and benefit.

Collaborator - a group, organization or individual who is a partner within a collaboration.

Community engagement - the act of getting the grassroots and the general public that form the community involved in the activities.

Complex collaboration - also known as collective impact, a cross-sector approach to solving complex social is- sues that are too large for one organization to make their own isolated effort.

Coordinated collaboration - collaborations that are more formal, where collaborators work on small projects or ventures.

Grassroots - informal groups and/or associations formed by the general public.

Group - a formal or informal organization that has formed for a specific purpose.

Performance measures - used to aid the group in understanding, assessing, managing and improving what they are doing. They can provide the group with important information on its activities and results.

Simple collaboration - informal, short-term collaborations that entail limited commitment, with the intention of networking and sharing information, and developing mutual trust by relationship-building


Collective Impact Handout. Tamarack Institute. 2015.

Collective Impact Workshop - Brant Haldimand Norfolk Funders Network. The Collective Impact Opportunity: Building a Common Agenda through Community Engagement. Marg Kowalski. Innoweave. February 26, 2015.

North Etobicoke Local Immigration Partnership: Collaboration Toolkit. Nayar Consulting.

Definition and Characteristics of Authentic Collaboration. United Way Toronto.

Facts about Collaboration. United Way Toronto.

Harwood Institute.


The material in The Basics of Collaboration has been adapted from a variety of resources from the following organizations: (developed by Capacity Builders, a division of the Ontario Community Support Association), the Tamarack Institute, and the Harwood Institute.

We thank all those who contributed to this project for the valuable feedback and insight they provided.

For more information:
Toll Free: 1-877-424-1300