A Study on Collaborative Leadership Yields Data and Hope


A Study on Collaborative Leadership Yields Data and Hope

Collaborative leadership is a topic that comes up frequently within the nonprofit realm. It's sometimes referred to by other names, including relational, distributed, collective, and shared leadership. Whatever the terminology, it can be a crucial ingredient for effectiveness, particularly for social services organizations, and ethically, it represents an overdue attempt to address systemic imbalances in the ways charitable funding is disbursed. But while discussion in the nonprofit community seems to suggest a consensus that such collaborations are desirable, in practice most groups within the sector still use a traditional hierarchical leadership model.

Maureen Malomba, a Doctoral Assistant in the School of Strategic Leadership Studies at prestigious James Madison University, decided to study the subject of collaborative leadership by looking at a specific intervention. Her research, set out in a paper titled Community Collaboration Towards Solving Rural Social Issues, was conducted in partnership with Margaret F. Sloan, also of James Madison University, and looks at teen pregnancy in Kilifi County, a rural area of Kenya.

Malomba's qualifications for conducting such a study are many. She grew up in Kenya and attended high school there, and among her plaudits are a selection in 2021 as an ARNOVA Graduate Diversity Scholar, one of only 24 chosen for this professional development program in the field of nonprofit studies. The goal of her and Sloan's research was to determine whether collaboration on a rural community problem was considered a success by involved stakeholders. In order to find the answer, they asked the groups working in Kilifi County to self-assess their efforts.

The scope of the teen pregnancy problem is daunting. 15% of teenagers aged 15 to 19 years are pregnant or have given birth. This factor and others create difficulties in addressing the issue, and abortion is illegal in the country, all of which means interventions begin with disadvantages, must proceed on tiptoe, and hinge upon mutual trust.

Malomba comments upon this latter need herself when she notes, “In many cases the community does not easily agree with the NPOs. Conflict is most of the time inevitable. Just like in any other organization, leading change can be a challenge. However, trust can mitigate conflicts or disagreements and increase the chance for collaboration. Because trust-building takes time, it is upon NPO leaders to intentionally build trust by first mapping out the community and having an articulate plan on where to start.”

In the case of Kilifi County, an important starting point was that the Kenyan government has said it wants to end unwanted teen pregnancies by 2030. It agrees that such pregnancies are a barrier to gender equality, and the already high rate can be assumed to have gone up during the recent era of COVID-19 lockdowns. This is the difficult backdrop against which Malomba and Sloan's research was conducted.

Their study began by establishing six metrics deemed as absolutely necessary antecedents to successful collaboration. Those are: assess the environment, create clarity, build trust, share power, develop people, and self-reflection. Malomba explains them one by one: “Assessing the environment involves, among other things, familiarization of the community by mapping, data collection and interpretation, communication, and understanding their culture. Creating clarity includes making sense of the previous metric and drawing out a plan on how to approach intervention from facts established through data interpretation. Building trust involves creating a safe space for building a transparent, truthful, and open relationship that may lead to a long-term trusting relationship. Sharing power involves recognizing power dynamics and respecting them. Developing people is involved with mentorship, empowerment, and providing a safe space for leadership development. And self-reflection is understanding self-efficacy and using both interpersonal and emotional intelligence to connect with others.”

The six metrics were then integrated into a survey asking nonprofit leaders in Kilifi County how they felt they were performing in each area. “The survey was for self-assessment,” Malomba explains, “therefore the respondents are describing themselves and not the organization.” As she writes in the study, “The six antecedents together measure the attributes of a leader to enable a collaborative environment that will foster participatory approaches that can eventually lead to better quality decisions that could lead to sustainability.”

When Malomba and Sloan examined the results, they found that the respondents had rated themselves most highly in the area of developing people, and lowest in the area of trusting. Concerning the latter, Malomba notes, “Depending on the nature of the program, some changes are harder to implement or sell than others, depending on the community's values and culture. Mapping out key stakeholders might provide the NPO leaders with who they need in their inner circle. In every community, there are key stakeholders who tend to be more influential than others, for example, religious leaders and local politicians who already have loyal followers. NPO leaders need to communicate to these key community leaders their intentions clearly, truthfully, and openly in order to ease the process of trust-building.”

Malomba's advice continues: “The NPO leader should make them see the big-picture of their intervention. At the same time, the leader needs to be respectful, appreciate their skills and resources, listen to their concerns and suggestions. By establishing a good rapport and trust with key stakeholders, the NPO leader will have increased his or her circle of influential advocates for their intervention.”

“Building trust can be emotionally and financially tasking. Sadly, most NPOs operate on a shoestring budget, and more often than not, resources tend to be scarce. On the flip side, when collaborations work smoothly, it is impossible to monetarize the long-term benefits; therefore, funders must be made aware of this extra cost. Lastly, be prepared as an NPO leader for trade-offs. There could be a lot of compromises—give and take scenarios—but do not lose the vision.”

Malomba's study is useful for nonprofit leaders everywhere, not only because it builds on the growing literature on collaborative leadership, but because Malomba believes the six metrics she and Sloan offered to their respondents for self-assessment can be used as a framework by any nonprofit seeking to work collaboratively. Naturally, their approach is even more important in Kilifi County, where it will hopefully yield recommendations on collaborative strategies to help nonprofits working there to mitigate teen pregnancy, and possibly other social issues.

Summing up the experience of conducting her study, and reflecting on the insights gained, Malomba says, “Let me start by quoting [James MacGregor] Burns: 'Leadership brings about real change that leaders intend'. The advantage of collaboration can be enormously positive for moving an agenda forward, mobilizing stakeholders, or simply increasing a nonprofit’s outcome to influence a greater number of people.”

While the study has concluded, the work never ends. There is limited research so far in the area of leadership development in communities through collaboration as a strategy. Already Malomba is pondering whether a future study might answer the question of why teenage pregnancy tends to persist, even in collaboration. Her hope is that her and Sloan's study could suggest methods for addressing the root problem.