Collaboration doesn’t work

Posted on February 18, 2009



If you are on ‘full time’ staff at your church or non-profit, collaboration with volunteers is hard, slow, and frustrating. Is it worth the pain? Let’s face it; you could just do the job yourself if you had to. Sounds like you have lost faith in the potential of collaboration. Let me explain two established ‘game theory’ models that describe how collaboration fails and succeeds.

Prisoner’s Dilemma

This is a very simple model. I have the prisoner and you have the money. How do we exchange when we don’t trust each other? Someone is bound to betray the other. So what happens? There is no deal and we both lose. Collaboration models fail if there is not a basic foundation of trust. But what if there is trust, why does collaboration fail?


Ultimatum Dilemma

Imagine you are in one room and I am in another. You are given $100 to share with me. How you determine the percentage is totally up to you- 20/80, 30/70, etc. But, if I don’t like the offer then I can reject it and no one gets anything. Think for a moment, if your goal was to keep as much as possible, how much would you offer? $10? $20? $40? If said around $50, guess what? You hit the average when tested regardless of time, economics, or culture. Even though in theory, the person receiving just $1 would be better off than none, there is an inherent sense of ‘fairness’ that won’t accept anything less than around $40-50. On the converse, the giver also knows that he has to make a ‘fair’ trade to get what he wants. I personally did this with about 20 people and almost all of them offered $50.


What does game theory have to do with volunteer collaboration? Let’s presuppose that there is a foundation of trust on your teams. From a staff perspective, it seems that if we offer volunteers 10-20% or even 30% they should be happy with that opportunity, right? Wrong. Because you are holding the majority of the decision/power/authority, fairness is being compromised thus making collaboration difficult.


We are living in an era of the ‘Volunteer Revolution’. With budget cuts, lack of resources, and layoffs, the Church desperately needs volunteers more than ever. This is their time to unite and lead our church into the future. Why don’t they? Because we are offering them $5 or $10 opportunities thinking we are being generous. Come on, make a fair offer. So what this means for you?


Revolutions are radical. They are chaotic, passionate, and organic. However, a revolution brings change and unites people to overcome the odds- no matter how great. Remember, creativity is the change agent of our society. Imagine what would happen if you gave away $70, $80, or $90 worth of you ministry to volunteers? I believe a revolution would occur that this world has never seen. God knows we need it.


Revolutionaries unite!