What COVID-19 taught us about radical collaboration

I used to toss around the concept of partnership rather haphazardly. I would use the term “partner” like many of us used it in high school — a means to an end mandated by a teacher, where one person did all the work and then the group pretended they did it together to get a good grade.

Today, COVID-19 has stripped away any pretense of partnering just for show. The partnerships I have been part of during this crisis have been real. They have been impactful. They are built on trust, and they have built more trust. In short, they were the very definition of powerful partnerships.

If 2020 had a tagline it would be either, “Worst year ever,” or “We’re in it together.” Being an optimist, I would choose the latter. Amidst all the terrible news, we saw shining examples of how people came together to fight the pandemic. How the worst of times brought out the best in us.

One example was working with Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, Lt. Governor Jon Husted, the Ohio Manufacturers’ Association, JobsOhio, hospitals and many others to form the Ohio Manufacturing Alliance to Fight COVID-19. When nurses wearing garbage bags showed us that our frontline heroes desperately needed personal protective equipment (PPE), Ohio’s manufacturers stepped up to join the Alliance and make it.

Moving at lightning speed, new supply chains were established, new products were innovated with new technology and thousands of Ohio manufacturers made millions of pieces of PPE. These efforts created jobs and increased economic vitality while protecting Ohio. This powerful partnership actually saved lives.

In the midst of the pandemic, unemployment hit its highest level since the Great Depression. Paradoxically, there are still open positions at local manufacturers. Even COVID-19 couldn’t wipe out our talent shortage. So, at the height of COVID-19, we ramped up new programs to find untapped talent. Fifteen manufacturers in Cuyahoga County’s Workforce Connect Manufacturing Sector Partnership partnered with organizations like the Urban League, Ohio Means Jobs, Towards Employment, Nordson Foundation and others to launch a new program to train formerly incarcerated individuals. Almost all of them were hired into new manufacturing jobs before restaurants were able to reopen in Ohio. This powerful partnership changed lives.

Throughout the pandemic, progress continued with the new Innovation District in the MidTown neighborhood of Cleveland, a partnership between MidTown Cleveland Inc, community members, the Cleveland Foundation, MAGNET, JumpStart, developer Wexford and others. This hub of research, manufacturing technology and inclusive entrepreneurship progressed despite lockdowns, shutdowns and remote work. This powerful partnership will kickstart innovation.

These examples demonstrate that we truly are “in it together.” In fact, while the world was falling apart, we learned to work together even better. I call it radical collaboration. And it won’t stop when COVID-19 stops.

We’ve seen what we are truly capable of when we have trust, purpose, shared credit, passion and appreciation for the bigger picture. As we rebuild, that’s how nonprofits can and will continue to make a difference. Many of our partners are already working on new collaborations, reinventing the systems that perpetuate inequities and capturing the opportunities that will propel us forward. That’s why I strongly believe that, as we rebound, reinvent and rebuild from the chaos of the pandemic, powerful partnerships will be one of the lasting positive legacies of 2020.

Ethan Karp is President and CEO of MAGNET: The Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network