In an ongoing series of articles, I have discussed the place of multistakeholder collaboration in addressing the information disorder. Specifically, its importance and how to bring collectives together. A natural follow on to these discussions is how such collaborations can be sustainable and move past the initial issues which united the collectives in question. In this final article, I explore some of the key considerations multistakeholder collectives ought to have in mind, such as purpose, defined roles, and perhaps most importantly, dynamism.
Crisis of purpose
A common thread running through the collectives discussed in my previous article, such as Verificado and Comprova, is that purpose was a key factor that drove collaboration. Without exception, each multistakeholder collective united around an event or substantial issue and logically so. These included, for example, elections or the pandemic. This initial purpose often serves as a good spark to ignite collaboration and have organizations make compromises and leverage synergies. However, it is sometimes insufficient to sustain long-term collaboration. This challenge becomes more acute beyond the lifecycle of the unifying event or issue—a point at which collectives may face a crisis of purpose.
At the same time, a loosely defined purpose that may survive a change in circumstances is hardly an incentive for meaningful collaboration and neither is it likely to lend itself to social impact. Collectives therefore must tread a tightrope of piggybacking on decidedly important social issues without pegging so much of their identity on those issues as to lose relevance as soon as the issues subside. Striking a balance is further complicated by how peer-to-peer networks have changed media consumption and driven up fluidity in the issues to which society attaches importance.
Existing beyond the collective
Closely linked to these collectives’ purpose is the role the wider collective plays as against the roles of each member organization. Existing examples of such collectives suggest that these collaborations serve to amplify the work of each individual organization to reach broader audiences. Illustratively, this was Fumbua’s primary role. However, in the course of collaboration, the collective may take a life of its own and engage in activities aimed at fulfilling its purpose either on its own or in partnership with some member organizations. Where this happens, the collective may inadvertently or deliberately begin to shape the programmatic work done by its member organizations. To the extent that this happens, member organizations then have to consider the alignment of their own agenda with that of the collective, and the place of its work beyond the collective’s initiatives. This is an important consideration for member organizations because they run the risk of their identity being subsumed in that of the collective. While seemingly a selfish consideration, it is valid because the collaboration is voluntary, and the value extracted by member organizations—other than the contribution to a social cause—is amplification of their work to new audiences. And this value may be lost where these audiences end up conflating the member organization’s work with that of the collective.
The collective may inadvertently or deliberately begin to shape the programmatic work done by its member organizations.
For collectives to overcome this challenge, it is important for member organizations to be deliberate about collaboration and role allocation from the onset. The very purpose of these collaborative efforts is to leverage on synergies and comparative advantages to achieve broader, holistic impact. This can be done where each member organization is fully aware of its exact contribution to the purpose of the collective.
Envisioning sustainable collaboration is undoubtedly easier than implementing it. Numerous factors come into play that make it hard to plan for drastic changes in socio-political circumstances or shifting priorities among collective members. An element of dynamism is therefore indispensable to sustainable collaboration. The collectives, and their members, ought to be able to respond to evolving circumstances in a manner that aligns with their core purpose. At face value, too much dynamism may seem diametrically opposed to defining a clear purpose that would incentivize collaboration. However, dynamism is exactly what such collaborations require to avoid the crisis of purpose earlier mentioned. If collaboration is organized around a sufficiently broad purpose (such as positively impacting media consumption), with specific short-term objectives (such as focusing on election misinformation), collectives may be able to retrofit their operations to respond to evolving challenges while maintaining relevance.
At face value, too much dynamism may seem diametrically opposed to defining a clear purpose that would incentivize collaboration.
One of the reasons for building multistakeholder collaboration is to consolidate the gains made over time, and iterate the structures necessary for broad, inclusive and sustainable collaboration. This can only be done when collectives begin with the long-term in mind and design their purposes and assign roles accordingly. In all, these collectives should not be fixed in a particular approach, more so in the face of evolving circumstances.