As the sun set over the Pacific Ocean, I witnessed one of the main ecological attractions in Ixtapa, Mexico-- the release of baby sea turtles into the ocean. This experience is imprinted on the females, of whom less than 5% reach adulthood, who return to the very same beach to lay their eggs. As one of 400 Opportunity Collaboration delegates working on poverty alleviation, my experience with collaborative action while in Ixtapa was similarly imprinted on me. 

Opportunity Collaboration is an annual convening of social entrepreneurs, philanthropists, nonprofit leaders, impact investors, academics, and other poverty alleviation actors from around the world. Recognized as an “un-conference,” delegates are largely free to set their own schedules where some of the most rewarding conversations are as likely to take place in a planned meeting as by chance encounter. The intent is to provide a space where delegates can reflect on their experiences with poverty, learn from the successes and failures of other delegates, and build collaborative relationships that can continue to be developed beyond the event.

Opportunity Collaboration’s motto “convene, connect, catalyze” is analogous to the process of forming a network, as described by Peter Plastrik, Madeleine Taylor, and John Cleveland in Connecting to Change the World: Harnessing the Power of Networks for Social Impact. In this book the authors describe connect-align-produce as a sequence for developing the capacity of networks to take collaborative action. Opportunity Collaboration is reflective of a global network of changemakers that are committed to amplifying efforts to alleviate poverty where collaboration emerges from fragmentation, diversity leads to greater unity, and cross-fertilization of ideas generates innovation.

Phase 1: Connect

During this phase participants are introduced, exchange information, and build trust. Conveners, such as Opportunity Collaboration, create a venue for participants to meet each other and begin to develop relationships that can lead to collaborative action. In this case, a four-day retreat provided the space where delegates, who were removed from the pressures of daily work, could share their experiences with poverty alleviation as part of getting to know each other. 

Throughout the week there were numerous opportunities for connection with other delegates. Structured activities, such as the Colloquium for the Common Good, enabled us to examine our personal relationship with poverty, grapple with the root causes of income inequality, and explore social change efforts, such as civil rights movements. It was in this safe space that I got to know other members of my small group on a deeper level. During these daily gatherings we shared our reflections about poverty as well as the challenges that are holding us back from achieving our intended impact.

Equally valuable were the one-on-one conversations with delegates I wouldn’t ordinarily have had the chance to meet. A fundamental value of Opportunity Collaboration is to approach delegates in the spirit of being helpful. Unlike traditional conferences where relationships tend to be transactional (i.e., what can you can do for me), I learned that being relational takes care of the transactional. In other words, people are more willing to help once they like and trust the person they’ve gotten to know.  

Phase 2: Align

During this phase participants capitalize on the connections made and begin to explore possibilities for taking collaborative action by aligning around shared goals. Deepening relationships can generate interest in working together on issues of common concern. For example, an unplanned conversation with a delegate led to an offer to connect me with an organization whose work is critical to a new network I’m helping to form.

Power dynamics can get in the way of alignment if a participant has greater authority or more resources. In such instances it helps to create a level playing field where everyone can actively participate. Some examples include requiring members to contribute resources that are of equal value or proportional to their participation in the network and ensuring that all members have a say in how decisions are made, such as one member one vote.

Rather than bring in outside speakers, all delegates were involved in Opportunity Collaboration activities. One of my roles was to facilitate a workshop for delegates about a process for mobilizing support to achieve poverty alleviation goals. Aside from fostering active participation, the Opportunity Collaboration organizers provide nametags where only the delegate’s name is written. This helps to minimize power dynamics by making it harder for delegates to seek out people based on their stature.

Phase 3: Produce

During this phase participants build upon the alignment that has been generated and organize to take collaborative action. Once there is a genuine interest in working together and relationships are sufficiently developed, the focus transitions to designing and implementing projects that can be jointly implemented. For the production stage to be successful, members must be willing to collectively make decisions and honor commitments made.

As a first-time delegate I’m grateful to have formed relationships with people who share my interest in helping social enterprises and social justice organizations become financially and organizationally sustainable. I’ve also appreciated getting to know some of the delegates I met before coming to this event on a deeper level. However, as I learned from veteran Opportunity Collaboration Delegates results from new connections may emerge over multiple “un-conferences” as relationships continue to grow.

Shortly after the female sea turtles hatch their eggs on the same beach where they entered the ocean, they are collected by the resort staff and kept safe from predators until the young turtles are ready to be released. Similarly, Opportunity Collaboration delegates come together each year within a supportive environment to form relationships and hatch ideas for taking collaborative action to alleviate global poverty. Like the young sea turtles, time will tell which relationships ultimately thrive and prosper.

This post was published by SEE Change Magazine on October 29, 2015.

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