If a Three Year Old Can Understand Cooperation…

Our youngest son wasn’t quite three years old at the time when his older brother unexpectedly gave him one of his coveted GI Joes.

As the result of being the recipient of such unexpected generosity, he turned to me, grinned, and said, “Mommy, that’s cooperation”.

While I was sure a child with that kind of a vocabulary was a genius, upon questioning, I soon realized that he had simply absorbed cooperation as the word of the day from Sesame Street. 

But it turns out he was on to something because cooperation is, or at least should be, a key word in our vocabulary.

Today it seems business, government, and non-profit organizations are all talking about the importance of cooperation, collaboration, and collective impact.

While it is a necessary response to complex issues and demands, the internet has made it much easier for us to connect. After all, the internet is the equivalent of a colossal worldwide computer that we all share.

That, when combined with a drive to save money, reduce duplication, and produce more and better products and services, does suggest working together needs to be a priority.

Unfortunately, there is often confusion about the terminology as too often the terms cooperation, collaboration, and collective impact are used inter-changeably when they are actually quite different.


Cooperation occurs when groups connect and overlap their goals to improve efficiencies and effectiveness while maintaining their respective mandates and responsibilities. It usually involves organizations from the same sector or those who have similar responsibilities but are often cooperating because they have to. Coming at it from a scarcity mindset, the focus is typically about protecting and defending one’s piece of the pie.

While collaboration also typically involves groups from the same sector, it is based on an abundance mindset, with the intent of working together to create a bigger pie for all. The groups develop new shared goals that promote the efforts of the larger collective, exchanging individual approaches for new ways to share information, resources, and responsibilities. By way of example, I used to be part of a collaborative that resulted in joint advocacy and training for recreation practitioners across a region of twelve municipalities.

Collective impact is a phrase coined by the Stanford Social Innovation Review to describe groups from different sectors coming together to solve a specific social problem. Today there are many examples of communities who have come together to tackle complex issues such as poverty, addictions, or to get people more physically active.

While cooperation and collaboration are good places to begin working together, they typically result in change that reforms — not necessarily the transformative change that is the result of collective impact.

We also need to think more about a fourth kind of working together that is best described as community transformation. That happens when an entire community comes together to address their community from a holistic or systems perspective examining both assets and challenges and considering both economic development and quality of life.

While community impact is more complex given that it is an inclusive community-driven movement involving self-selected citizens, organizations, government, and businesses, it typically leads to the trusted relationships that are essential for transformational change and nimble, responsive organizations and communities positioned for the future.

So while our youngest may not be a genius, I think as a young man, he would agree that more cooperation, collaboration, collective impact, and community transformation are exactly what our communities need. 

Posted on 11-05-17

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