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Robert David on Collaboration versus Partnership

By Risa Wilkerson on July 14th, 2021

In true collaboration you should feel just as much of the warmth from the sun as any other partner.

Since June 2020, Healthy Places by Design and Danville Regional Foundation have co-created and delivered a 10-month leadership curriculum called the “Collaboration Lab.” This joint endeavor, which just graduated the first class in June 2021, took 17 leaders from various backgrounds and sectors on a learning journey in which they explored how to create a culture of collaboration throughout the Dan River Region.

Collaboration Lab objectives include developing a deeper self-awareness and ability to implement system-wide collaborative approaches; building networks and relationships with leaders and community members; identifying strategies to meaningfully engage the appropriate stakeholders; applying collaborative approaches to city-level or regional challenges; and completing a planning sequence for a practical collaborative experience.

One of the leaders in the first cohort is Robert David. Robert is Danville's first Youth and Gang Violence Prevention Coordinator. I talked with him about his experience in the Collaboration Lab, and how he approaches his work across the community. He doesn’t like to be known just as “the gang prevention guy.” As you read, you’ll better understand why.


TS: How did you find yourself doing the work you do?

RD: I come from a giving family. If you were hungry, we’d take you in. I think it’s carried over into what I do now. At an early age I learned that listening is a powerful tool. I have always liked to be an empowerer. Innately, I just love to see people do well, and I see the positive in everybody. Out of all of the things that I do, that’s who I am.


What were your takeaways from the Collaboration Lab?

The biggest thing for me is the difference between a collaboration and a partnership. I’ve always used those words interchangeably, but they are quite different. To me a partnership can still leave room for certain people or entities to have more power than others and run the show. Collaboration is more about bringing together people who will co-create - and equally benefit from - authentic visions for addressing the shared concerns of the community. And now, looking at some earlier experiences, I recognize that some of my work with other agencies or groups was a “hostile takeover.” Or they would call things collaborations or partnerships, but essentially they just consumed everyone else. And then you realize it wasn’t a mutually beneficial situation and they were playing lip service to signing off on their ideas.

Now I’m able to express it to others, and we can be clearer upfront.  I want to continue to let people know that this should be a win-win. I don’t want people to feel like they are being used or you’re not giving up anything, but instead that there is structure and criteria you have to meet on both ends. Many times we end up being a silent partner. Sometimes simply acknowledging what you’re trying to do upfront can clear up expectations.

I find myself doing a lot of systems-thinking and this was brought up a lot during the Collaboration Lab. Many people will talk about programs they have. We need programs, but we need to ask “what role does it play in changing our systems?” My work with Project Imagine, which is a workforce readiness program for gangs and at-risk youth, is a system not a program. We operate in collaborative efforts to empower everyone involved.


What does a culture of collaboration look like to you? 

People tend to follow whatever is strong or successful. So I continue to talk about systems change as a way for us to all successfully make a big splash. I keep saying it at all the different tables I’m at, then others will start saying it and operating on a systems-level. At least that’s my thought. We aren’t trying to create a one-hit wonder but a systematic and synergistic approach that includes everyone to curb gang violence…and create so many other successes.

Another way to think about it is that we want to have everyone feel the warmth of the sun no matter how far away they are. Regardless of whether you’re a small non-profit or you represent the city at the collaborative table, you should still support and reap the benefits of the whole. In true collaboration you should feel just as much of the warmth from the sun as any other partner.


What continues to amaze you about true collaboration?

The ability to self-sustain. You need all the parts of a machine to function. You may not see small parts as important, but often without them, the whole cannot operate to its potential, and sometimes cannot work at all. If you take care of everyone, then the system keeps running. It’s as simple as that. What amazes me sometimes is the ability to be effective with a minimal amount of passionate people.


That reminds me of Chrislip and Larson’s Collaborative Premise from Collaborative Leadership*: “If you bring the appropriate people together as peers in constructive ways with good information, they will create strategies for addressing the concerns of the organization or community.”

With Project Imagine we have very little budget to do a program, because we don’t do programs. But with our outreach workers we’re connecting with appropriate family members and providing resources for everyone. We want all entities and family members to feel the impacts of the youth and gang violence coordinator’s department within the City Manager’s office. And we have impact that is exponential and ripples beyond Project Imagine to other agencies and organizations.


Anything else you’d want to pull out specifically about being a collaborative leader? Or other final thoughts?

You just have to be honest, true and genuine. A collaborative leader isn’t looking for approval. You don’t have to like me, but respect me. Many times in partnerships and collaborations, you find two types of people: those who want to be liked or those who are assertive with their ideas. Neither of these qualities helps to advance the collaborative mission. A good collaborative leader is one who is above that. They say what they mean and mean what they say. And bring in all ideas and voices of those who are most impacted. Also, a collaborative leader is transparent and doesn’t have side conversations or meetings after the meetings. Unfortunately, this is such a common occurrence. Transparency keeps things clear.

They don’t teach collaboration in school, they teach partnership. We aren’t taught about this concept of “win-win.” From an early age, we are taught that we can be leaders or followers, and we aren’t aware that you can be both at the same time. That is why we have to keep reminding ourselves – at all of our collaborative tables – to consider the win-win approach, and share the warmth of the sun.

Collaboration is about giving and loving. It’s not just about money, but also time. When we can see that “what you have is what we have, and what we have is what you have” then we can move forward.


*This was one of the seminal resources we use as a reference guide for the Collaboration Lab. If you are interested in hearing about other resources we referenced for certain portions of the Lab, please email me at

Risa Wilkerson

Executive Director

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