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Fly Fishing, collaborating with steelhead

A recent spate of funding opportunities has made me think back several years to an ongoing conversation some colleagues and I engaged in about whether collaboration could be taught in the abstract. In other words, could we teach organizations how to collaborate without actually having them work together on a project. Eventually, we concluded that no, collaboration cannot be taught through theory, it must be learned by practice.

The question makes me think of one of my favorite past-times, fly fishing. You can read – or watch endless YouTube videos – on how to cast, what flies to use, where to go, etc. But, in order to truly learn how to actually fly fish, you need to spend time on the water to feel the rush of the river around your legs, feel the weight of the rod in your hands, adjust to the wind, current, and sunlight, in the moment…then cast. And, then, calculate those factors all over again, one minute later, then cast. Repeat.

The Oregon Health Authority, Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Center for Sharing Public Health Services, and Public Health National Center for Innovations, among other funders have all released requests for proposals in the past few months with the specific goal of building cross-sector collaborations. Whether this will effectively build long-term collaborations is yet to be seen.

These funders are starting to recognize what we have known in the Gorge for years: we are more effective if we work together.

In the Gorge, we are ahead of the curve on collaborations. We have moved from simple opportunity-based collaborations that are developed in response to funding opportunities like those listed above to strategic collaborations that align cross-sector work to create better results, regardless of funding opportunities. Through the Healthy Gorge Initiative alone, we have 40+ examples of opportunity-based collaborations and there are many more beyond that work.

These examples have been our ‘time on the water.’ Collectively, we have learned to consider the current, wait for the wind, adjust accordingly, then cast, and repeat. Or, we have learned to authentically engage with each other and those with lived experience, we work to leave egos and personal (organizational) agendas outside, and we have learned to share the work and the funding. This simple, yet complex, practice has enabled us to focus on strategic collaborations that will result – we think – in better outcomes.

While we have responded to all of the funding opportunities above, and already received funding from two of the RFPs, we are utilizing these grants to develop strategic collaborations. We are working to build the community capacity and basic infrastructure to act more proactively to create a healthy community. Rather than just waiting for the next funding opportunity to come along that may address our needs, we are working to create a strategic vision for what WE think is important to creating a healthy community. Then, when a funding opportunity arises, we can demonstrate the community identified need and a community-identified solution that fits within a larger community-wide strategy.

The only problem is the fish. We can do everything perfect and the fish still don’t bite. In the case of steelhead fishing, the saying is ‘1,000 casts for every fish caught.’ We certainly don’t need 1,000 attempts for every effective collaboration. We learn from every attempt and we get better. For any strategic collaboration to work, we must be willing to learn from every change in condition and adjust with every cast. Only then, can we truly become proactive about addressing our community needs and creating a healthier community.

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