Bigger is not always better when it comes to collaboration!

This is the second article in a series by guest blogger Brittany Bruce

REAP Blog Head shot

Brittany’s series is based on her Masters’ thesis research on collaboration and economic development in two regions.  Her first article can be found here. Today’s post focuses on how size influences collaboration.


The common adage, “the more the merrier” may not necessarily ring true when it comes to collaborating for economic development. Brittany maps combinedDuring the course of my thesis research in North Country, New York and Four Counties, Ontario, I came to understand that there is often a threshold of inclusion for collaboration, after which there is diminishing returns. In brief, only so many people can be included before their presence becomes counter-productive to the original intent of the initiative.

Initiatives in this context may include any attempt made by local stakeholders to enhance economic development of an area. For example, an initiative could easily include a formal organization created to advocate for brand creation for a region, or an informal gathering of interested economic development officers who want to network and discuss the future direction of their region.

There is no magic number for the ‘right’ amount of participants or stakeholders in an initiative. Rather, the ideal number for an initiative will be influenced by geography, demography, and the type of initiative (as shown below in Table 1: Factors Impacting Collaborations).

Table 1 Factors Impacting Collaborations
Brittany Bruce Blog #2 Table 1My research on this topic revealed conflicting attitudes and outcomes towards having a diverse, large membership, particularly in relation to agricultural organizations or initiatives. The agricultural organizations I interviewed fell into two categories:

  1. organizations that fostered producer-consumer linkages and relationships with the aim of increasing farmer livelihoods and market accessibility and availability
  2. Organizations that worked towards increasing food security through the use of local, healthy food.

In the North Country, agricultural organizations have tended to have diverse memberships (both in terms of the subsectors covered, and geographic coverage). Interviewees believed this to be the right approach for their region that has helped to smooth the collaborative process.

“Sometimes too many people get involved and sometimes it turns into a big muddled mess, but the truth of the matter is…things improve when you get more people involved”.

In a number of organizations in the North Country, a conscious effort was made to include as many diverse agricultural groups as possible (ex: dairy producers, commodities producers, small scale vegetable producers, viniculture experts etc.).

Happy Smiling Diverse Group Of Youth

In contrast. in part because of sectoral diversity, stakeholders in the Four Counties have chosen to pursue small initiatives in terms of geographic coverage, in order to maintain county-level relationships with producers on the ground.  This is a strategy that was decided upon, in part because the main agricultural focuses on the Four Counties were perceived to be too different to make collaborating a natural choice. As an example, Foodlink Grey-Bruce (an organization that connects local producers and consumers) once operated as a unit. Recently however, the individual counties have decided to operate independently.

Limiting the geographic diversity of this collaboration has allowed positive outcomes to accrue more readily, as Grey and Bruce representatives feel they have enhanced relationships with their producers that they did not have before. Operating within county boundaries also reduced the amount of bureaucratic “red tape” faced by Foodlink.

So what should your organization do? It depends. Based on the experiences of my case regions, I have created a matrix that may give you a better idea of what direction your collaboration or initiative could pursue. And remember, structures change! So if you try out one model and it doesn’t work, try, try again!

Table 2 The Impact of Size on Economic Development Collaborative Initiatives
Brittany Bruce Blog 2 Table 2 Pros and Cons for Big and Small CollaborationsDiscussion

  1. What structure is your organization or region currently pursuing?
  2. Has it been working for you or are you considering changing course?
  3. What do you think is the best strategy for your region to pursue?


One thought on “Bigger is not always better when it comes to collaboration!

  1. Interesting read. THe GHFFA have managed to keep our collaboration together due to the champions we have for food and farming from municipalities,farming,food processing,education and research. 5 regions and the two largest cities in the Golden Horseshoe – works for us!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *