Catalytic collaboration – what it means for the OpenGov Hub

Nada Zohdy
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Scott Rumpsa, Director of Operations and Programs – February 15, 2017

Late last year, our colleague Nada Zohdy jointly published an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, “Path-breaking organizations, working together in a new way, might just transform the nonprofit sector.”1 Nada runs the OpenGov Hub, a coworking space consisting of three dozen plus organizational members, each promoting transparency, accountability and civic engagement around the world. Global Integrity jointly founded the Hub in 2012 with our partner, Development Gateway. Since that time, the Hub has grown up significantly, and we expect 2017 to be the most exciting yet, with Nada leading on the implementation of an inspiring, collaboration-focused strategy.

As both her published research and her day job directing the Hub community revolve around fostering community and catalyzing change, I’ve sat down and presented a few questions for Nada to reflect on.

When and why did you decide to begin the research that led to your SSIR article?

While working on my Master of Public Policy at the Kennedy School, I became part of a nonprofit management research team that first came together January 2015. We initially considered researching nonprofit mergers – with an interest in seeing how mergers might help avoid redundancy and promote efficiency in the nonprofit sector. But we soon realized that while there is significant research on the different structures or forms nonprofit collaborations can take (like mergers versus associations highlighted in this Bridgespan report), there was much still to be learned about the outcomes of nonprofit collaborations. We became excited to delve in by investigating diverse nonprofits with positive reputations for their collaborations to see if there were any special ingredients to their success.

What has the response to your article been so far?

We’ve been pleased to see pretty widespread interest in this new concept of catalytic collaboration, from organizations working to tackle hunger to others more interested in the implications for funders. We hope that by identifying this new trend, we can help nonprofit professionals bring fresh eyes to how they marshal their resources and work together in a way that produces outcomes far greater than the sum of their parts (and offers a new framing beyond the predominant Collective Impact framework).

How does the notion of catalytic collaboration align with your work here leading the OpenGov Hub community?

In a nutshell, I became Manager of the OpenGov Hub to help our network – and the global open government movement by extension – achieve catalytic collaboration, in order to tremendously amplify our ability to promote transparency, accountability and civic participation in governments and governance around the world.

In graduate school I focused on two areas: democracy/governance and social entrepreneurship/innovation, and I am extremely passionate about the intersection of those two things. This is what I like to think of as “civic innovation;” in other words, helping organizations who are improving relationship between citizens and governments be more efficient and effective in their work. So it was an honor to join the Hub and help deepen its ability to facilitate a truly collaborative community that helps open governance advocates achieve far more impact together than they ever could alone. I think this is especially necessary because improving and opening governance anywhere in the world is hard work, and far too complex for any one organization to achieve itself/in isolation.

The OpenGov Hub’s strategy we published last summer is a big step in this direction, as it identifies priorities for why and how we want to better tap our enormous network potential. And in the last three months, we’ve had lots of encouraging signs that we’re moving toward catalytic collaboration – for example, with a 12-person collaboration committee which helped create our 2017 action plan/toolkit for the year, seeing lots of people organizing to respond together since the election.

You note four essential behaviors of the truly catalytic collaborators you studied (prioritizing learning, systems thinking and acting, democratizing access to assets, and building long-term, diverse, transformational relationships). In these terms, could you briefly shed light on where the OpenGov Hub community stands – and where such a vision would lead us?

Prioritizing learning

Of all four traits, this might be one we’ve made the most progress on as the Hub so far. Sharing our learning from events is a simple but critical way we do this. And now, we’re starting to facilitate Skillshare Guilds and Working Groups for regularly bringing together people in the same room who care about the same issue or skillset to learn from each other. Facilitating honest conversations about what’s working, and even more importantly what isn’t, are also key and can only happen if people have interpersonal relationships and trust one another to share openly.

Systems thinking and acting

As a diverse network, we have the privilege of getting a bird’s eye view on the challenges and opportunities facing the entire open government movement as a whole. A number of Hub organizations examine ecosystem-level governance trends in their work (for example, the global trend around closing civic space, or increasing the availability of open government data). So our challenge as the Hub is to find ways to aggregate and map out those overarching systems and activities.

Democratizing access to assets

I think “Open by default” should not only be a motto that many of our organizations promote when it comes to data about government activities, but also in our own collaborative efforts. I often think about how can we be radically transparent with one another – about what we’re doing and learning in real-time, to jump start progress for our entire field. We’ve set up a number of simple but important tools – from shared Google Docs to a members-only online Portal – to promote asset sharing. These are in addition to the weekly (or more) activities and events we convene that help people connect and share at a more one to one level.

Building long-term, diverse, transformational relationships

The more time I spend leading the OpenGov Hub community, the more it seems to me that strong interpersonal relationships truly are the foundation for all effective collaborations. I’m excited about starting to see the fruits of these relationships across our member organizations that we’ve been cultivating over time.

Bringing together unusual suspects is also key. In my role I get to meet new people just about every single day, so I constantly think about how to loop them into our community to both support and benefit from our members. As a coworking space as well as a network, we have relationships with diverse stakeholders – from local and federal government, to the World Bank, to other coworking spaces, hubs and nonprofit centers in the US and around the world.

What else would you like to share with our readers?

Contrary to what many people might assume, competition isn’t actually a big hurdle for catalyzing more collaboration here at the OpenGov Hub. Instead, our members feel that the biggest barriers are limited time/capacity and limited information about the highest-value opportunities to benefit from working together. So we’re working hard to ‘nudge’ and create just enough scaffolding and connective tissue to activate this network and take things to the next level to live up to our important vision.

Finally, I hope we all always give any collaborative opportunities that come across our desks the consideration they deserve. I know that people can become frustrated with vague talk about collaboration for its own sake (or ‘kumbaya’ approaches to collaboration without clearly defined benefits or outcomes). But I truly believe the magnitude of challenges facing the global open government movement today make it not just nice but necessary for us to figure out far more efficient and effective ways to support each other, learn from each other, and work together – all to help protect the achievements this young global movement has had and make sure the future of government around the world is open.  

1Nada Zohdy, May Samali, Nathalie Laidler-Kylander, & Bernard Simonin, “Path-breaking organizations, working together in a new way, might just transform the nonprofit sector.” The Stanford Social Innovation Review, October 26, 2016

Nada Zohdy
Nada Zohdy
Director, Open Gov Hub

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