Are consortia just marriages of convenience?

Jess Farr was Sustainable Funding Officer at NCVO. She left in September 2012, but we have retained her blog posts for reference.

Last week I was lucky enough to get a free seat at the excellent Public Service Delivery Network’s Consortia for Contracts training. This was a great way to help me really think through the implications of voluntary organisations being encouraged to work together as part of a formal arrangement.

It also made me slightly concerned that some organisations are being effectively forced by economic circumstance into marriages of convenience, potentially causing more pain than joy in the long run. As last week’s training made clear, ‘paper’ collaborative models – perhaps whipped up for the benefit of a funder or commissioner – can end up in tragedy and divorce.

Firstly, what’s driving collaboration?

Well, as Shakespeare didn’t once write: the funding’s the thing.

For a long time now, grant funders have encouraged collaborative working, both to help “connect up” the dots between user services, to prevent the duplication of services, and to make sure that their grants are having the strongest impact. And, by and large, the feeling is that we like to collaborate with others for mutual benefit, particularly smaller organisations that might otherwise struggle to cut costs or deliver a holistic service on a straightened budget.

Added to this is the fact that public service contract delivery is still the fastest growing income opportunity for our sector – according to this year’s Almanac, its value has grown by a whopping £6.7 billion or 157% over the past 10 years. However, since most voluntary organisations are simply too small or niche to deliver high value statutory contracts, many are very sensibly building consortia that can bid for and deliver them instead.

Inevitably, some relationships aren’t always positive, and voluntary organisations have been known to engage in turf wars (see right for a handy illustration).

But aside from financial concerns, the benefits of a strong working partnership can be great – a good example being the Stonewall Housing project, which combined the expertise of two major charities to provide a much needed joined-up service for LGBT people in housing need.

And it looks like most voluntary organisations agree that collaboration is the way forward. In NCVO’s latest Charity Forecast, 74% charity leaders said that they expected their organisations to collaborate more with others over the next 12 months – although we didn’t ask them why they thought this would be the case.

So what’s the problem?

Building a formal collaborative model such as a consortium takes time, something organisations don’t necessarily have a lot of if their primary motivation is adapting to the recent grants drought. But building a functioning consortium also needs something equally crucial – a genuine desire to work with others.

For many organisations, entering into a collaborative model is a sound financial decision on paper, but the realities of having to work across organisations with potentially very different philosophies and cultures could take a serious toll further on down the line. This potential for cultural conflict is escalated where funded programmes are delivered by a network of both for-profit and not-for-profit organisations, as has been fairly well demonstrated by the recent controversy surrounding the Work Programme.

Aside from any potential new income stream gained from entering into a formal collaboration, it’s still crucial for organisations to consider the added benefits that collaboration can bring, as well as any potential challenges, in order to make a sound strategic decision. There’s some great guidance on how to think through whether your organisation is ready for formal collaborative working on this factsheet, as well as plenty of case studies and guidance on different collaborative models on the NCVO website – why not take a look?

Still some spadework to do?

I’m not suggesting that voluntary organisations are making the decision to enter into consortia lightly, but I do wonder if issues around willingness and ability to work closely with others are taken seriously enough before signing on the dotted line. After years of effectively competing against each other for attention and funding, there could still be a lot of spade work to do before we can transform our organisations into genuine, best practice models of collaboration

What do you think?

Is your organisation already in a consortium, or another collaborative model? What did it take to get there? I’d love to hear your thoughts

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