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Tuesday 1 March 2016

Identify 'Keep within Reach Groups' during the early stages of your collaborative work

Most people and communities, as long as they are correctly identified and engaged with, need not be perceived as 'Hard to Reach'. There are, however, some people and communities which will prove hard to 'Keep within Reach'.

As a collaborative initiative progresses, some people and communities will become increasingly engaged not only with the collaboration's work but also with each other, forming a rich hub or club within the boundaries of the wider collaboration. They will do this fairly quickly, within the first few months of the collaboration's life. The members of this rich club will probably share similar outlooks and have access to similar or complementary expertise and resources.

On the other hand, and virtually inevitably (for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction), as the rich club develops so too will a corresponding poor club.

This poor club may or may not be poor in terms of resources and expertise, but it will probably be perceived by the rich club as having little of value to offer. It will likely be inexperienced in collaborative working and maintaining and developing relationships across organisational and sector boundaries. It will very likely contain less formal and less easily labelled organisations or communities, represent minority interests and be positioned (or have positioned itself) away from the mainstream of society or even the sectors from which its members originated. Also, its members may fail to gain entry into a collaboration's rich club because they cannot pay the price in terms of investing their time and attention.  

The creation of this poor club is the precursor to its members disengaging from the collaboration's activities and eventually absenting themselves entirely (or alternatively agitating and rebelling against the collaboration's activities), having been starved of attention, access to support, resources and expertise in favour of the continued replenishment of the rich club and its interests and contributions.       

Preventing the development of the poor club needs to be a priority during a collaboration's engagement with those it needs to involve in its work. It can be tempting to rely solely upon the influence and resources of the ever more powerful rich club but doing so will eventually and inevitably lead to the fragmentation of the collaboration and the steady and perhaps rapid decline of its effectiveness.

This is because the unique insights, passion, vitality and energetic creativity needed to sustain collaborative working and produce innovative approaches and solutions (which is what most collaborations are formed to achieve) tend to emerge from the unusual rather than usual suspects who become involved in a collaboration's work, or through the synergy created when unusual suspects collaborate with those who have access to the resources and complementary expertise which can transform intriguing ideas into usefully innovative ones.

Preventing the poor club from forming and its members disappearing into collaborative obscurity and eventual invisibility (or rebelling) can be achieved by doing the following:
  • Demonstrating that KwR groups' skills, qualities, knowledge and experience are of significant value.
  • Building the capability of KwR groups in the areas of managing relationships, networking and using social media, giving presentations and participating in meetings.
  • Focusing upon encouraging and supporting KwR groups early on during the first few months of a collaboration's work.
  • Giving KwR groups significant roles within the collaboration and helping them develop expertise that is recognised as valuable by other partners and stakeholders.   

For some, rich club/poor club formation is happening within the Collective Impact approach to collaborative working. In Washington State and some other USA cities communities of colour are becoming increasingly alarmed about the growing power and influence of Collaborative Impact initiatives and the 'rich club' mainstream organisations and businesses which form their backbones. As these rich club backbone organisations gain power and influence and attract resources, those not in the club, those not reserved a place at the table where decisions are made and resources are shared, are reduced to waiting for an invitation to stand before those at the table and make their case (a case which will most likely be listened to and perhaps accepted if it complements the menu expected by those seated at the table). It is only a matter of time before those standing before the table realise they have been segregated into a poor club reliant upon handouts from those seated at the table. Those left standing and waiting will then be sorely tempted to turn on their heels, turn their backs upon the unpleasant sight of those feasting before them, and walk away to struggle on as best they can using whatever resources they can skilfully scavenge from elsewhere.

In Australia, the community engagement approach of the Victoria State Government battles against the formation of rich clubs and the resentful disengagement of poor clubs. A key part of the State's strategy is to identify under-represented groups, involve them early on and work at maintaining contact with them. This keeps them within reach and helps ensure they are not corralled into poor clubs that gradually become isolated, disengaged and resentful. The State's initiatives also seek to not only use the unique insights, knowledge, skills and experiences of their KwR groups but also add to them in areas helpful to both the KwR groups and the initiatives of which they are part. This not only enhances the value of KwR groups but also adds to their perceived credibility with more mainstream and/or potentially rich club partners.               
Another example of rich club/poor club formation is currently happening in Calgary, Canada. For some in Calgary, community engagement has become more like community confrontation (which illustrates that poor clubs do not always disappear but sometimes agitate and rebel). Part of the problem is that a 'rich club' of organisations has formed very quickly which is well endowed with the time to get involved and holds common interests and ideals. This means that those with little time to get involved and who have different interests and ideals have quickly gained membership of a poor club, becoming detached from (and feeling resentful about) the process of community engagement.

Resolving the above situation is not simply about creating more consultation. It is about identifying and acknowledging the emerging poor club and appreciating why it is poor (here a key aspect is having the time to get involved) and creating strategies to engage with its members early on and keep them within reach and involved. This will mean moving beyond traditional meetings and making involvement and contribution (however small) welcome and easy. This will, in no small part, be achieved by expanding the role of social media and incorporating it within required community engagement processes.    

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