Welcome to the Party! How to onboard new collaborative partners

Welcome neon sign on brick wall background

This blog was originally published by the Collective Impact Forum.

If collective impact efforts have any certainties, one surely is the ever-revolving (one might hope ever-evolving) door of community partners coming to the table. Our efforts for inclusivity, the reality that multisector coalitions invite instability as people leave jobs and new people come in: it’s inevitable that we will be regularly onboarding new partners.

How do we invite in new faces without disrupting the focus and momentum of the team? I’m often asked this as I coach collective impact efforts. Here are a few strategies that seem to work.

Build Context

If you know someone is joining the collaboration before they attend their first meeting, make every attempt to grab a cup coffee – in person, through Zoom – to talk through the history, the current work and where you’re heading as an initiative. Visuals can really help. One of the best visuals I’ve found is a journey map, which is developed by the team and can be used to orient incoming partners. Talking through the journey map gives new players critical context for the work. Invite the new partner to add their story to the map to continue to evolve the collaboration’s shared understanding of the work. If you can, invite another team member join you over coffee to help tell the story, build relationships across organizations, and position the backbone less as a gatekeeper and more as a weaver.

Set the Stage

Sometimes the first time we meet a new partner is when they walk into a meeting. Take time at the beginning of every meeting to orient everyone to the work at hand. This is as helpful for longstanding partners as it is for newcomers. As a facilitator, I like to start meetings with a visual that reminds the group where we are our process. I often use a timeline that shows where we started, what we’re up to at this juncture, and where we’re heading. This helps everyone – new people and existing partners – get grounded in the work at hand. It is also very helpful to keep people focused on the present tasks.

Anticipate Change

As I mentioned, it’s inevitable that new players will come on the scene. As a group, have an intentional discussion about how you strive to welcome new partners to the table. I have often coached groups to develop a principle that speaks directly to this intent. For example, a group may explicitly state, “We recognize that new partners will come to the table throughout our initiative, and we strive to foster a sense of belonging for all.”

Belonging is deeper than merely being inclusive. As professor john a. powell stated at the Collective Impact Forum convening earlier this year, “Belonging suggests when you join something, you have the power and standing to participate in the cocreation of the thing you’re joining.”

I recently facilitated a team that is preparing to double the size of their leadership table. We went through a simple process of defining what we should do at that first meeting in order to foster a sense of belonging. Examples include: co-create groups norms and expectations, review our current history and our theory of change, and create time for every organization to share what they bring to the table.

Build Your Foundation

The first phase of many collaboratives includes a series of meetings in which we develop our principles and norms, determine our decision making structure, define roles and articulate a theory of change. This deep, important group work can get lost in the din of meeting minutes and emails chains. I often coach groups to build a binder of materials that capture this important foundational work. The binder is a living collection of decisions and approaches to the work. Once such a binder exists, it is extraordinarily helpful when orienting new partners, as it can help simplify the complexity of our multi-sector collaborative approach.

These are some strategies that I use when coaching or leading collective impact efforts. Let me know what works for you.

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