Planning for Your Collaboration

August 24, 2023

Planning for collaborations is unique

The issues facing those of us seeking healthy communities and ecosystems are complex. Most groups do not have the ability to create changes needed on their own. Bringing organizations together in a collaboration or network can often be the only way to create the new innovations, pooled resources, and power needed to leverage change for complex issues.

Planning in a collaboration requires a specific and nuanced approach.

This approach gives attention to the unique potential and strength of a more fluid and dynamic collaborative reality. Often, people and organizations working together consciously or unconsciously default to an “organizational” approach, leaning on traditional strategic planning approaches and templates. This is understandable, as the complexity of collaborative spaces can make it challenging to make the most basic decisions that can move a group forward. However, to unleash the potential of collaborations’ efforts to create spaces for innovative collective learning, shared understanding of priorities, common planning, and more, it is essential to step away from organization mindsets and move towards a new approach to planning that empowers the group.

This guide highlights key lessons that ICL staff and consultants have learned from observing and working with networks, coalitions, and alliances. Applying more of a “network mindset” is central in our thinking and what we know to be important about proactively planning for evolution.

Four Key "Must Haves" From Your Collaboration's Planning Efforts
1) Clarified Direction
Planning can happen at many levels, and using a typical strategic planning model, it’s often tempting to create a plan with detailed goals, objectives, and activities.

Instead, focus your planning time on clarifying your collaboration’s overarching desires and direction. Collective decision making about your future direction will be easier if everyone involved in the planning is anchored in the collaboration’s history and current shared values. Often, a question such as “What is the unique benefit or value we can gain from our collaboration over the next year” or, “What can we do together that we can’t do alone?” will provoke discussions that lead to a clearer direction.


One collaboration thought about their direction as if it were a compass. They specifically discussed the direction they had been going, and then what shift in direction they wanted for the year ahead. “Maybe we have been headed east, and we actually need to adjust and go north based on what we are hearing from leaders in the groups.” They shifted from their priority of building a brand and large web presence for collaboration itself, and instead focused the collaboration’s priorities on serving two key needs of their members.

2) Doable Priorities
In a collaboration’s planning process, it is especially helpful to consider all the options and then work hard to choose one or two priorities for activities to focus on in the next year or two.
simple list icon with numbers 1-3

This may include fine-tuning a current priority or identifying a new one. Making a collective statement about the priority will undoubtedly mean deemphasizing or letting go of other strategies. In consideration of your collaboration’s overall priorities, force yourselves to ruthlessly choose based on what can 1) support the direction you want to go in, 2) have the most leverage for change, and 3) engage current or new partners by understanding and meeting their needs and interests. Having a focused list of doable priorities also creates space for activities of smaller “nodes” of groups within the collaboration to pursue emerging opportunities.


A network had been doing a series of workshops together on diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice (DEIJ). Through the learning process, they had begun to identify an emerging need to connect a new constituency with sustainability efforts in their region. About 1/3 of the network’s participants were interested, and they prioritized a specific set of steps to build a working relationship with a new partner over the next year. This partner could then help the network shape a new priority strategy. In identifying this priority, they also let go of a previous educational priority that included monthly “lunch and learn” sessions with the community.

3) Identified Champions


One critical way collaborations test their priorities is to ask: “Do we have at least one to three people in the collaboration who will give time and energy to making this priority happen?”
simple icon of four people surrounding the earth with a victory flag

It might be a fantastic idea as a priority, but without clear member leadership, it will be a struggle to marshal participation and progress. This holds true, even with paid staff coordinating the collaboration. A clear set of “all in” and energized people who will champion the priority in the coming months will create the critical conditions for engagement and success.


In one planning process, a coalition had brainstormed eight priorities or goals for the coming year. To test this list and narrow their priorities they asked the leaders in the meeting to rank each priority on their support using a continuum:

I’ll Leave – I Like It – I Love It – I’ll Lead

After using the continuum, they had three priorities that people were willing to lead, and a couple of priorities that were mostly ranked only at “like.” They used this data to further choose and hone their priorities. As one leader said in the meeting, “If we don’t have leadership energy behind something, we don’t bother with it.”

4) Added Momentum
The strength of a collaboration can often be measured by the amount of energy gathered, sustained, and created by coming together.
simple icon with two people moving forward indicated by arrows

Momentum – the strength or force gained by motion or by a series of events — can be a critical ingredient in the life of a partnership or collaboration. Collaborations can gain a boost of energy with clear plans. And, if given good attention, the process of gathering, engaging, and deciding plans for a collaboration can contribute to the collective energy and momentum. With priorities driven by and exciting for collaboration members or participants, energy and engagement will grow as the work evolves and accomplishments stack up.


An alliance had noticed that participation had been waning over the last six months. They set up two meetings and made personal one-on-one email and phone calls to encourage all members to attend. At the first meeting the highly interactive discussion focused on the collaboration’s history, values, and recent accomplishments, as well as what had been working and what were the biggest current interests of members. In the second meeting, the group created a set of possible priorities, and chose a new priority that evolved the collaboration’s focus and adapted to new needs and opportunities identified in the process.

Multiple Benefits From Your Planning Process

Planning, especially in a coalition or collaborative effort, can have multiple purposes. Yes, you want to emerge from the planning process with a clear and concrete plan. And the work of planning together can also be a good vehicle for assessing your current practices for communicating, meeting, and engaging those participating in the collaboration.

To accomplish the dual purposes, pay attention to the following questions while you are planning so that you can also improve the overall health of your collaboration:

Decision Making: Does our collaboration have a shared understanding of how we make decisions? Is the group doing the planning clear about how we will make decisions at different steps in the planning process?

Strengthening Trust: How can we use the planning process to build the critical collaborative conditions of strong relationships, trust, and connection?

Knowing Your Members: How can we better understand our members or participants – What do they want to get from their participation in the collaboration? What do they want to give or contribute to the collaboration’s efforts?

Integrating Equity and Inclusion: If our collaboration seeks to integrate approaches supporting diversity, equity, inclusion, or justice (DEIJ), have we given adequate time and attention to DEIJ in our planning efforts?

Fine Tuning Your Processes: How do our current “platforms” or ways of working support our new direction and priorities? And could we experiment with some new approaches as we do our planning work together?

  • Do we need to adjust how we meet – Frequency? In person or virtually? Time of day? Enough engagement during our meetings?
  • How do we communicate with our members or participants? Is our communication one-way or two-way?
  • Do nodes or subgroups have good ways of meeting, collaborating, and connecting with the wider collaboration?

As you step into (or continue) your collaborative leadership journey, keep in mind that multi-stakeholder groups like coalitions, alliances, and networks are unique and therefore function differently than organizations. Because collaborative groups are more loosely structured than what you may be used to in an organizational setting, the strength of the group comes from the relationships and trust between people. All collaborative groups will benefit from being as intentional as possible when planning the activities, actions, and strategies that will help them achieve their collective goals. Being organized from the get-go can help mitigate frustrations, minimize disruptions, and ensure equity and inclusion, which in turn will help to foster confidence in your group’s power while sustaining the momentum of the collaborative work.

ICL encourage leaders like you to save the condensed handout version of this post, Planning for Your Collaboration, for when you need a refresher about purposeful planning. 

You can also find other resources in our Collaboration Resource Hub to support your leadership journey: