How to Foster Collaborative Relationships

In 2017, Don Green, Jake Bowers, and I launched research4impact, a LinkedIn-style online platform to enable greater connectedness among researchers, nonprofit practitioners, and policy makers. The venue enabled participants to build a profile and then reach out to others.

Each of us had already had extensive experience connecting with people in research, practice, and policy, and personally saw great value in connections with diverse participants. We knew that people from these different networks bring unique knowledge, expertise, and direct experience to understanding and solving many problems of mutual concern, such as how to slow climate change, end poverty, improve education, and boost voter engagement. Yet they often remained disconnected. At the same time, we were also increasingly fielding questions from colleagues in these diverse networks about how to foster new collaborative relationships of their own in order to broaden their knowledge base and engage in research partnerships. Our goal was to build something that would help.

Within the first 10 months, 388 people built profiles that were quite detailed. People took time to describe themselves, their current work, and the topics that they cared the most about. Most also included a picture. They had all overcome many of the major barriers to any new voluntary activity: Although they were strangers to each other, they had taken advantage of the opportunity that the site offered and demonstrated their capacity and motivation to engage. Pleased with this apparent success, we had every reason to expect that they would initiate a flurry of new connections.

It didn’t happen. During that first 10 months, only 7 people initiated contact with someone else on the platform.

The failure of the research4impact online platform (what we have since dubbed research4impact 1.0) underscored an important lesson: New relationships between diverse thinkers require not only capacity, motivation, and opportunity, but also what I call relationality—a belief that others will relate to us in ways that we would like, along with the belief that we can successfully relate to others as well.


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