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Written by: Bob Bertsch

Addressing complex issues, like military family readiness, requires activity at a variety of levels.  While it’s important that work is being done at the level of an individual or single organization, partnering between organizations expands the scope and diversity of activities to better address the complexity of the issue. Partnering is critical, but not all partnering is as effective as it could be.

The Four Cs of Partnering

In a study of the disaster response in Haiti following the 2010 earthquake, Eric Martin, Isabelle Nolte, and Emma Vitolo found important distinctions between partnering behavior among organizations (2016). They identified four partnering activities that represent how embedded organizations are in partnering activities.

The Four Cs

  • Communication is the least embedded activity. Organizations communicate with each other, but there are no significant costs or risks, and low commitment to common goals.
  • Cooperation requires organizations to recognize they have similar goals. They have the willingness to work together but without much shared risk.
  • Coordination goes beyond cooperation because it involves a commitment to work together tactically toward a common goal. It requires an investment of time and resources to do it well, but it doesn’t require organizations to change their work significantly.
  • Collaboration is the “most embedded, riskiest and costly activity of the partnering continuum, signaling a deep relationship that requires change and strategic action within both partner organizations” (Martin, 2016).

 When partnering with another department or organization, it may be helpful for both partners to be aware of these different partnering activities. Partnerships could be negatively affected by a mismatch between what types of activities each partner expects. For example, if one organization is expecting collaboration and the other is expecting communication, the partner expecting collaboration may think the other partner is not committed to the partnership, when they are committed, just at a different level. Partnerships might also be enhanced by all partners understanding these different levels of activity. Knowledge of the “Four Cs” can give partners something to aspire to and ensure they are aware of the costs and risks associated with each activity level.

Getting to Collaboration 

The Arizona Coalition for Military Families is a nationally recognized partnership focused on building statewide capacity to support service members, veterans, their families, and communities. The Coalition has been able to cultivate partnerships at the collaboration level through its use of the Collective Impact model.

In a recent interview on the Practicing Connection podcast, Nicola Winkel, project director at the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, talked about why the Coalition is striving for collaboration and is committed to the principles of Collective Impact.

“When you look at our service members, veterans, and their families, by nature of who they are, they will intersect with multiple systems. It’s almost inevitable. If we’re going to effectively serve and support them, we cannot do it siloed. We can’t do it siloed as organizations, and we can’t do it siloed as sectors and systems.  It is just simply not possible to do it for any one organization, do it alone. That’s the beauty of collective impact. We do things that each organization alone cannot do but with each organization doing exactly what they need to be doing. That public-private partnership is absolutely at the heart of everything that we do.”

What is Collective Impact?

Collective Impact is an approach to large-scale social change that involves community members, organizations, and institutions learning together, aligning, and integrating their actions. It stands in sharp contrast with “isolated impact” in which organizations primarily work alone on social problems.

For a group of groups, like the Arizona Coalition for Military Families, the elements of collective impact allow them to collaborate on addressing a social issue while balancing the interests of the individual organizations and institutions with the shared interest of the network or coalition.

In their seminal article on collective impact, John Kania and Mark Kramer described five conditions for the success of a collective impact organization. 

  1. A common agenda, including a shared vision and understanding of the problem.
  2. A shared measurement system, so the common agenda can be measured and reported.
  3. Mutually reinforcing activities that tap into each group’s strengths, but are coordinated into a plan of action.
  4. Continuous communication helps coordinate activities, but more importantly, helps develop the trust needed for collaboration.
  5. A backbone support organization with skills for supporting and sustaining the collective impact organization, so individual groups can focus on executing the shared plan of action.

Collective Impact is just one of several sets of principles for doing work together. It’s provided here as an example that can guide partners to more embedded partnership activities. 

If you are in an existing partnership, do you (and/or your partners) know which of the Four Cs best describes your partnership activities? Whether you know or not, it could be helpful to share the Four Cs among the partners as a way of sparking a conversation that could identify mismatched expectations and give your partnership something to aspire to. 

If your group is struggling with collaboration, you may want to explore frameworks for working together, like Collective Impact. These frameworks are not recipes to be followed, but ideas to be explored. Discussing them in your group can help set intentional directions for how you want to work together to achieve your goal.


Collective Impact (SSIR). (n.d.). Retrieved February 12, 2024, from

Martin, E., Nolte, I., & Vitolo, E. (2016). The Four Cs of disaster partnering: Communication, cooperation, coordination and collaboration. Disasters, 40(4), 621–643.