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Community-Centered Selfishness

Independent Sector

Dave Smith

February 7, 2017

Collaborations can achieve greater impact by paying attention not only to collective goals and what each partner puts into it, but also to what each partner organization gets out of it. This approach of creating value for individual partners—rather than just the collective—can be called “community-centered selfishness.”

The idea of partners walking away from a collaboration with something of value that they can use to advance their individual missions has gone largely unrecognized, especially when it may result in revenue or reputation gain for an individual member of the collaborative. An example of this view of the benefits of collaborations was Reimagining Service, a time-bound campaign to increase social impact through effective volunteer engagement across all sectors. This effort balanced collective aims with individual interests in a way that the literature on collaboration does not often acknowledge, particularly in the nonprofit sector, which tends to aspire to ideals of altruism and collectivism. Although Reimagining Service sunset its work in January 2015, its unique approach to shared ownership among its members resulted in a legacy that lives beyond the collaboration itself. Here are some of the keys to successful collaborations we learned from Reimaging Service:


Collaborations are successful when people want to be involved and feel their involvement is making a difference.

Reimagining Service was started with the idea that it would do some research, publish some tools, and be done in six months. What founding members of the Reimaging Service Council did not expect, however, was that its work would resonate so broadly across the sector, or that ideas developed in the collaboration would turn into standalone products.

I had worked with and known enough of the Council members that it was intriguing and very desirable to be a part of the group. I was very interested in the human capital and the social capital I could gain from this opportunity. In many cases, collaborations bring people together, and the collaboration’s mission is the reason that they are there. But in this case, it was the people who were the reason they were there, and the collaboration just unlocked unachieved potential.


A collaboration does not necessarily have to mean additional work.

As Nilofer Merchant noted in Eight Dangers of Collaboration, collaborations can often be overwhelming if they happen on top of other work. Reimagining Service did not add to members’ already full plates, but it instead enhanced their current work and that of their respective organizations. We were not coming to add something to our day job, but to make what we were doing for our day job better. It was not an addition to our schedule; it was an added value. We each were coming into this group with our own interests and needs, so when tasks were assigned, they aligned with members’ day jobs. We looked for opportunities that we wanted to do anyway, and this collaboration allowed us to focus on them, refine them, and improve them before launch.

Many of the members were either finding new business development or using the research and development offered by Reimagining Service. Reimagining Service offered a space and brain trust for consultation that would have cost time and resources we wouldn’t have had otherwise.


Collaborations can provide a uniquely neutral space for competitors from various sectors to come together to partner and contribute.

Having diverse perspectives around the table pushed everyone to challenge their assumptions about what was possible, and moved them out of their comfort zones. This environment turned up the heat to a point where things could get challenging and created the opportunity for action.

Per Merchant, roles and responsibilities in collaborations are often fluid, changing from phase to phase of the work, and executives are often pushed to think and act differently in collaboration than they are typically used to, requiring greater tolerance for uncertainty. These environments often require adaptive leadership, and adaptation is a key component of success.

The collaborative included representatives from nonprofits, corporations, government, and academia. The value was having a combination of research firms, academic institutions, and corporations not just sending volunteers to organizations, but also being part of defining the problems and creating solutions. This group helped marshal collective human, social, and financial resources through a corporate mindset. We had to think about volunteering not just from the vantage point of our own organizations but as a field – creating a market and launching a product to the market. We had marketing experts who crossed the nonprofit and corporate sectors, and nonprofits with specific missions on the ground alongside nonprofits funneling human capital into other organizations. This blend of people across the entire pipeline of the problem we were trying to solve helped us understand the full system we were working in and how to identify leverage points within that system. Ultimately, all stakeholders contributed and had skin in the game.


A disposition towards action and a ‘community-centered selfishness approach’ helped this collaboration achieve results.

Coming initially to Reimagining Service to explore the concept of what good corporate community engagement would look like, I sought colleagues to provide input to our metrics and provide expertise on how to engage companies in participating in this project. I was looking for expertise and a network, and I found both of those, in addition to champions. I have been part of numerous coalitions that would have a similar number of meetings, but I did not feel like we were getting the same amount of work done.

Reimagining Service was action oriented, and we had real products we were trying to advance. We were not just meeting to meet, or to debate, but instead to spawn ideas that we then moved forward. No one was coming into this positioned in a way that they had to “earn friends” or as an “anointed king.” Everyone knew enough people that trust was high, but not enough that they could control the conversation.

We had to be comfortable with ambiguity and, as Merchant states, “shift from thinking big ideas alone, and more into the real-time mess of problem solving with others.” We started with a bias toward action, the free flow of information, sharing in the success with each other, and knowing that we were also working toward our own individual end goals.

The community-centered selfishness helped move our collaboration from talk to action and from merely feeling good to making decisions.

In the end, the decision to sunset Reimaging Service was made easier since we each had gotten value out of being together as innovators. The time came to stop meeting and focus on implementing the products we had created together. Once individual needs were met (or not), it made perfect sense to all move on to the next big thing, and to take the lessons learned from this collaboration and apply them in the future. Thus, WIIFM (what’s in it for me?) may be the very best way to begin your next collaboration.

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