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A Conversation with Liz Weaver

By Risa Wilkerson on October 28th, 2020


Since June of this year, I’ve had the pleasure of co-creating “Collaboration Lab,” a year-long experiential learning curriculum, alongside Annie Martinie, Senior Program Officer and Director of Collaboration with the Danville Regional Foundation, and Liz Weaver, Co-CEO of the Tamarack Institute. This is the first time I’ve had the opportunity to work with Liz, who has a wealth of knowledge about collaboration and collaborative leadership. It was a delight to interview someone who spends her time thinking deeply about the process of collaboration. Enjoy.

TS: Tell me a little about the Tamarack Institute.

LW: Tamarack is a charity organization based in Waterloo, Ontario, working across Canada and with partners in Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and the UK and US. Tamarack, in a nutshell, is about bringing together place and learning. We mainly work with community leaders who are advancing change locally. Our three focus areas are: place-based poverty reduction, revitalizing neighborhoods, and working at collaborative tables to improve youth outcomes. We also have a learning center where we look at emerging issues in the field and share that information through tools, resources, books, webinars, and online learning so that people can do their work more effectively.

What led you to the work you’re doing around collaboration, Collective Impact, and collaborative leadership?

While I was the Executive Director of a volunteer center, we developed a program called Bay Area Leadership, which brought leaders from different sectors together to think about how to work more collaboratively. Afterward, I worked as the director of an organization using the Collective Impact model to reduce poverty. That led me to Tamarack’s poverty-reduction work about 15 years ago.

Collaboration has always been a part of my career, and more recently our organization embraced Collective Impact. We think about the power that leaders have to come together to change communities, and we see Collective Impact as a pathway to create systems change. There are a lot of people who are engaged in programmatic work, but what I’m more interested in is how we can also look at where the system isn’t working, so that the whole range of programs can better meet communities’ needs.

What are some recent or surprising things you’ve learned about collaboration and collaborative leadership? Any trends?

All trends—whether we’re talking about racial equity or economic equity or climate equity—are larger systemic problems. And we can’t engage with these larger systemic problems with the old solutions we’ve been trying. They call for different knowledge and a different way of coming together to use those different types of knowledge. At Tamarack, we talk about content leaders and context leaders. Context leaders are those who are most impacted by a problem or have deep knowledge about how a community is working, and they see how people are navigating that problem. By combining content with context, we can get closer and closer to identifying barriers to health and how to work through them. In order to address these complex problems, we need both types of leaders.

I recently read an article in Harvard Business Review directed toward business leaders called The COVID Two-Step for Leaders: Protect and Pivot. In the nonprofit space, we’re so much about protecting resources that we’re often too busy to see the need to pivot. How can we do both?

Speaking of pivoting—now more than ever, there is so much divisiveness in addressing problems. How can we improve collaboration with people who have differing views about systemic issues?

I lead a workshop on trust and collaboration, and one of the things we talk about is turf. Turf is there for a reason. If we’re feeling threatened, we try to protect what we have. In the workshop, we talk about how to see this reflexive response from a behavioral perspective. We explain fight and flight behaviors and how to navigate them to work more effectively together. It’s about looking at the root causes of conflict, like power imbalances, people feeling they’re not being heard, or someone coming from a different perspective. Then we ask, how can we lean into the power that everybody brings? And how can we authentically engage with them and include their suggestions in solutions?

Sometimes, we can’t. There’s a really good book called “Collaborating with the Enemy” which talks about how sometimes, you do have to walk away. We can do our best and set up rules for engagement, decision-making processes, and improved co-designing, but there will still be times when reconciliation just isn’t possible.

What does collaboration look like during a pandemic? You talk about three important stages for collaborative leaders post-pandemic: Respond, Recover, and Deepening Resilience Capacity. Can you share more about these stages?

I wrote a paper about Collective Impact from the perspective of COVID-19, looking at how communities have responded, recovered, and how they are building resilience. Cool things have happened! We’re seeing how people, organizations, and governments (to some degree) are pivoting quite quickly in a way that protects people. We saw that emerge in March and April. Now, we’re thinking about how to maintain the work we’re doing, adjusting if needed, and protecting our employees and stakeholders.

Paul Schmitt, who works with the Collective Impact Forum, has a great analogy: in the case of an emergency on a plane, you have to first put on your own mask before you put it on a child or help your neighbor. This translates to resilience as we recognize that we have to protect our ability to respond so that we can in turn help others, especially as many people are starting to feel exhausted by so much uncertainty. We don’t know what the future holds for us. It’s hard to even know where we’ll be a year from now. Resilience is not just about building back better, but also about having agreements in place that help us navigate uncertainty as best we can.

For example, at Tamarack we do a lot of face-to-face workshops. We get so much energy from those, but we just realized we don’t know when we’ll be able to do them safely again. So early on, we decided that from now until December 2021, we’ll do everything online. I could hear the team relax into this decision, simply because now we all know what to expect. We’ll do our best to make it successful, and we’ll worry less about the things we can’t control.

Thanks for that reminder. You’ve also mentioned some great resources! Is there anything else you’d recommend others check out?

I’m currently reading, along with our whole team, “Agile Engagement: How to Drive Lasting Results by Cultivating a Flexible, Responsive, and Collaborative Culture” by Santiago Jaramillo and Todd Richardson. The book talks about co-creating a work environment where everyone is engaged and takes responsibility. Since we work remotely, we’ve created a book club within our organization, and we’re adopting some of the co-creation ideas around planning. We’ll see where we land.

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

Action-driven optimist, abundance thinker, and simplicity seeker.