The Illusion of Value-less Collaborations

April 20, 2011

In my last blog, I wrote about the need to collaborate in order to save services from the wrecking ball of budget cuts. Joining together is easier said than done. Between tax day and the federal budget battle, I'm guessing many of us may need a break from budget talk, so let's shift gears and consider collaboration. What exactly makes for a healthy collaboration between agencies? Most importantly, what happens when two sides disagree wholeheartedly about how to reach shared goals?

Across the internet, I find any number of principles for collaboration. One list that is often cited comes from the University of Michigan: Be transparent, be reciprocal, consult regularly, and so forth. Nowhere is there a mention of communicating your values.  For many, this could feel like an uncharted, potentially unsafe territory. Let’s peek a bit further.

Much of what I know about partnership comes from my work with homeless youth in Miami – and reflecting on how I could have gone about things differently. Running one of the only organizations reaching out to homeless youth with very little spare change ourselves, I had more needs to fill than we could possibly meet. Other agencies were experts in doing for others what our youth needed help with. In every way, collaboration was a necessity. Sensing that individual agencies working in their own silos couldn’t effectively address prevention, intervention, and aftercare by themselves, I gathered a group of “stakeholders” together and dubbed us the Miami Taskforce for Homeless Youth.  

I opened the first meeting with all the right words, paraphrased from my mentor at the University of Miami: “If we fail to partner, then we suffer from failure of our imaginations. If we want to go beyond mediocrity, we must form partnerships.” I repeated them s-l-o-w-l-y for extra effect. The crowd nodded. I thought we were already halfway towards our goal. After all, what was the problem if we all seemed to agree that we had to end homelessness for young people?

The problem was – and is – that shared goals can disguise divergent values. Same-goal, different-value situations can stymie the direction your partnership takes. Here are some examples: 

  • One partner (believing that teen prostitution is a crime) wants to jail the young runaway for prostitution to get her off the streets. The other partner (believing that teen sex trafficking is the real crime) sees her as a victim in need of treatment and safe-harboring.
  • One partner (believing that the system saves) wants to turn the homeless 17-year-old boy over to Child Welfare, despite that child having been abused by previous group homes and foster families. The other partner (believing that 17-year-olds should make their own choices) allows that child to spend the night on the streets as they wish to do.
  • One partner (believing that youth have internal problems contributing to their homelessness) wants to fix deficiencies within individual youth. The other partner (believing that homelessness is a failure of systems) works to hold systems accountable for their part in youth homelessness.

In these scenarios, each partner very much wants to end youth homelessness. Each partner has shown up to the meeting. Each partner wants to access resources the other has, and share their own.  However, each partner has a completely different perspective on what it will take to do the job, based on his or her own informed value system.

Same goal? Check. Same values? Not at all.

I’ve learned that collaborating without knowledge of my partners’ values is shortsighted because those values always exist, sometimes operating quietly in the background towards or against progress of the partnership. I should have had the values conversation.

I was reminded of that lesson again when I read a recent post on the Reclaiming Futures blog about Child Welfare advocates moving towards drug testing the parents of youth who are in protective services. For everyone involved, the goal is clear: Protection and welfare of the child. But, real snags come when you consider the values implicit in the plan to drug test. If you asked a drug counselor, state social worker, and a lawyer, you’d hear about three distinct value-systems. 

When the National Center on Substance Abuse and Child Welfare issued a best-practice statement for agencies looking to implement parent drug testing, they wrote:

"Partner agencies need to understand value differences across systems concerning approaches to families affected by substance use disorders… [We have] adopted the Collaborative Values Inventory (CVI) developed by Children and Family Futures… We recommend that partners explore these values [emphasis added] when they begin forming policies and procedures governing drug testing."

According to the authors, the CVI can “identify issues that may not be raised if the collaborative begins its work together without clarifying the underlying values of its members.” I’m not sure if tools like the CVI exist for other structured value inventories. But I do believe that the process of collaboration needs to start with an assessment of an organization’s own values. Your organization may have a current statement about those values. If not, they should be pretty easy to discern by the organization spends its time and resources and how it treats its clients and employees. Other values are implicit in beliefs about the origins of problems, ranges of solutions, and the accountability of members and employees to address problems.

Once an organization’s own values are cataloged, groups can come together and discuss the points of similarity and contention between them. Under an agreement of civility and respect, representatives can take turns in speaking about their values. Members can raise questions to each other about implications of each value position. Then, members can define the limitations and advantages of their collaboration along value agreements and differences.  This is my suggestion. Perhaps it’s only a start.  

The idea of collaborating without values is simply an illusion. We are not neutral; our values are there at every stakeholder table we sit at. Because we can’t get away at marriage without a discussion of values; we shouldn’t expect much success by avoiding it at the organizational level.

What do you think? Share your reactions below.



Eddy Ameen   is an editorial contributor to SparkAction and pre-doctoral psychology intern who counsels teens in the District of Columbia Superior Court. He is formerly the executive director of the Miami homeless youth program, StandUp For Kids.Kids.

Eddy Ameen