Taking the pain out of partnerships

Ed Mayo, chief executive of Pilotlight, will chair the session ‘Taking the pain out of partnerships’ at #ACEVOFest. Here’s a preview of what’s to come!

A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page

Are you a good partner? It is not always easy, is it?

Many of us learn the pain of partnership as children with siblings. My family would debate as we ate; I learned how to get a word in edgeways. As the third of four children, I was competing along with my sister and brothers for attention, for love, for fun. We are now inseparable. Successful families nurture both collaboration and competition.

When we come to the world of work, partnership is often seen as the painful option. The Apprentice is favourite TV for many and encourages the idea of the loner, self-reliant as the way to win.  

But it is also an utterly false picture of how to succeed in business, where in truth good partnerships are key to success. Margaret Heffernan is a Business Professor and author of A Bigger Prize: why competition isn’t everything and how we can do better. She argues that the “overarching message of the show is that business is just like sport: vicious, anti-social and where there can be only one winner, who succeeds by defeating all the other competitors.” In reality she concludes, you can do more through partnership.

The idea that partnership is painful, a distraction from winning on our own is also prevalent in the charity sector. Funding systems, commissioning, influence all tend to work on encouraging many to apply, so that a few can succeed. In the winner takes all philosophy, only few are leaders. It is as if life was a ranking exercise, about sorting us by status.

As a sector, we ought to be good at partnership. We have a higher purpose and we are driven by values. But that is not always how it works out. Our leadership and governance model places a premium on the stewardship of the organisation and its resources, rather than our accountability for achieving its mission (which of course is something that can only usually be done through partnership).

So how can we take the pain out of partnerships?

This is the topic for one session during the coming ACEVOFest. Ndidi Okezie CEO, UK Youth will reflect about building the #YoungAndBlack campaign at speed, platforming the voices of those affected, logistics of working across different organisations and the lessons learned.

Frank Fletcher, CEO, Ellen MacArthur Trust will set out why the Children and Young Person Cancer Coalition was created, how they navigate conflicts of interest, the structures needed to make the coalition work and its successes and challenges.

“For partnerships to work” says Frank “we have put the people or causes we serve before our organisations, partnerships are not difficult when you are less concerned about who’s logo appears where and more concerned about the impact that can be achieved. The Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust could not exist without strong partnerships with CLIC and Teenage Cancer Trust, we have found a way to work together that puts young people at the centre.”

There are multiple forms of partnership of course, and what matters is finding what works for you. There are good sources of advice too, whether on forming a consortia, which proved invaluable over the lockdown for charities in Bromley, or on mergers, as charities look to cut costs at a time of need.

Three elements are essential across any successful collaboration: shared commitment, common interest and mutual trust. When these are all present, you get beyond what economists call a zero-sum game. That is to say the effect of each is compounded: each multiplies the effect of the other.

The co-operative sector, not surprisingly, is one in which collaboration has always been encouraged. The principle of co-operating with other co-operatives is written into the rules of every co-operative society in the UK, but there is a recognition too that every society needs to invest in the skills of collaboration – co-operative education – to make a reality of this.

One of these skills is conflict resolution. Tensions are inevitable in any partnership, in any social setting, but ensuring that pain of tensions do not become clashes, of values or of personalities, takes skills of listening, engagement and facilitation.

The good news is that these skills of collaboration are some of the most sought after skills in today’s economy. As we face into collective challenges of poverty and inequality coming out of the pandemic, of entrenched racism and of the climate emergency beyond, only partnership can take away the pain. The charity sector could be an exemplar for collaboration.

You may still feel that you are better off alone, that partnership is not for you. But just remember, as Lily Tomlin says, “the trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you’re still a rat.”

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