Rebalancing the relationship: Overcoming barriers to collaboration

Mark SimmsWe have launched the final report of the Rebalancing the Relationship project, in partnership with ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales. The report explores competition and collaboration between charities of different types and sizes, and focuses on the experiences of charities bidding for and delivering public service contracts. Chief executive of P3, Mark Simms, offers his reflections on collaboration and leadership.

We have a strong partnership culture at P3. We used to be small and local, now we are big and local. We worked with others to achieve better outcomes for communities, and grew as a result. I’ve observed a few things along the way, mostly in my role as CEO of P3 but also in my role as trustee of other voluntary organisations:

  1. Co-operation isn’t enough. Organisations may work together, but their approach is rooted in ‘I’ll do my part, and you do yours’. This can feel like it’s collaborative, but I view this as co-operation. It means sharing – not only goals and work, but also resources, experience, expertise and crucially, risk and reward.
  2. If you think you can do it all alone, you’re kidding yourself. It takes a community to effect real lasting change for the people we support, and that means all types of organisations working together. Collaboration enables us to get the right people, the right resources, the right expertise, the right experience on the right tasks, to deliver the right outcomes. These things improve efficiency, create stronger work relationships, improve problem-solving capabilities, and drive innovation.
  3. You should be focused on your charitable purpose, not just on the money, your market share or your organisational ego. Traditionally, commissioners reward and compensate organisations based on achievement of defined individual goals. This means  individual organisations and the people working for them can become focused on achieving these goals at the expense of broader community needs and aspirations. Leaders have a vital role to play in focusing organisational culture and behaviours on impact for people and communities.

The fear of collaboration

I’ve noticed over the years that the idea of collaboration seems to prompt fear in colleagues and potential collaborators. Organisations are scared of what working with those that look very different will mean for their ways of working and processes. Local or smaller organisations may feel that ‘the big boys are coming’, or ‘they only want us for bid candy’, especially after bad experiences in the past. Meanwhile larger or national organisations may have experienced inefficient partnerships, leading to stereotyping about ‘the small and local – well-meaning but expensive and quite amateur’.

This is all driven by a lack of trust. We fear a loss of our organisation’s ‘unique’ identity. We fear a loss of legitimacy in the eyes of funders and commissioners. What we fear most is a loss of control. We often feel that we must be able to act autonomously to effect meaningful change, and that ‘no one can do it like we can’. Often these fears result in a sense of territorial ownership of local areas, issues, expertise, or experience. 

Ownership provides a way for us to differentiate ourselves, but it doesn’t support collaboration. These fears can be subtle or hidden, but ultimately distract us from focusing on impact for people and communities.

How can leaders help their organisations overcome this fear of collaboration?

This report highlights several essential ingredients for truly collaborative organisations. Leaders are the ones to unlock the real potential and  behaviours associated with more productive collaboration. One of the biggest reasons why organisations slip back into competition is that they become disconnected from the organisation’s purpose and values. Leaders are vital to address this because we lead on the mission.

In addition to ensuring focus on purpose and ensuring a strategic focus, there are a number of steps leaders can take to support their organisation to collaborate. These include:

  • Communicating openly and honestly with other leaders to build trust
  • Empowering and trusting staff, especially those at a local level, to build partnerships with other organisations and focus on serving their community 
  • Focusing on growing impact, rather than market share
  • Pushing back on poor commissioning practices demonstrated by authorities 

The big question is: how can we serve people better, and are we closer to fulfilling our mission? Big and small, national and local, charities need to ask these questions of themselves and answer honestly. And I’m pretty sure you’re more likely to answer yes, if you’re a collaborative organisation.

Read the full Rebalancing the Relationship project report. Follow @NCVO, @LBFEW and @ACEVO for updates about this work, and tweet about this project using #RebalancingTheRelationship. NCVO is hosting a webinar on the learning from this project on 10 February 2021. Please follow this link to sign up for this event.

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