Laura Bunt, deputy chief executive at With You, writes about the importance of building collaborative cultures.
A narrated version of this blog is available at the bottom of the page
In early 2019, NCVO, ACEVO and the Lloyds Bank Foundation launched a new project exploring the relationship between large and small voluntary organisations, and how they could work better together in bidding for and delivering contracts for public services. Against a backdrop of high profile outsourcing failures, and increasingly competitive public markets, the project set out to learn from organisations of all sizes about what would make a difference and what organisations themselves can do to support better collaboration.
Sitting here (at home) in 2021, the steering group meetings and workshops of the early days of this project feel like a different world. We’re now almost a year into the covid-19 pandemic, a crisis that has affected all of us but in very uneven ways. All of us having to get to grip with long periods of isolation, anxiety, loneliness, boredom; families attempting to juggle home schooling, work and caring, often without the space and equipment they need to do so; millions facing worklessness and poverty; life-changing bereavements, and the mental and physical health impacts of covid-19 that will be with us for decades to come.
During the outbreak of the pandemic, we witnessed the determination, creative spirit and collaborative nature of civil society across the board. Communities pulled together and made things happen. Millions volunteered. New voluntary organisations sprung up in days to make sure people had food, company and could access the support and care they needed. We were all operating with a kind of ‘surge capacity’; all hands on deck to make sure everyone could be safe. When we were really pushed, our overwhelming instinct was to collaborate.
Charities aren’t inherently good, but people are drawn to work in charities because they want to make a difference. So what unites us – big and small, local and national – is that we share a sense of mission. We want to make a difference to people’s lives. Everything else is a means to that end.
Throughout the course of this pandemic, the landscape for charities has changed profoundly. We all anticipate big increases in demand for services, and funding is all the more scarce. Many charities that rely on fundraising or retail have had to make cuts or face closures. Lots of procurement has been put on hold as local authorities prioritise their pandemic response. And we’ve all adapted to new ways of working and delivering services in this extremely online world.
The launch of this report comes at a pivotal time. The future looks very uncertain – but there is a lot that we can do to shape it. Will we return to competing furiously for even fewer resources? Will we decide to retrench and protect what we know, hoping for things to get back to ‘normal’? Or will we look for alliances and explore new ways to help people and communities emerge from the crisis?
A shared sense of mission as a north star for collaboration
Collaboration is very easy to talk about, but very hard to do. As a (relatively) large organisation, at With You we are very aware of the significant investment and time it takes to build strong and productive relationships and work effectively across organisational boundaries. It takes deliberate effort and careful stewardship. As the case studies in this report show, trust is very easily won or lost depending on how organisations work together in practice.
It’s also crucial we don’t downplay the realities of the funding environment for charities, particularly in relation to public services. Whether large or small, if your business model depends on income from delivering public sector contracts then every contract matters; small margins and a relatively small customer base means that each contract won or lost can have serious consequences. As a larger charity, you may have high fixed costs and central staff teams that require a minimum level of income to be viable. As a smaller charity, a single contract may be all it takes to secure the organisation’s future or not.
As leaders, we have to balance the commercial realities of running organisations and keeping people in jobs with an unwavering focus on why we are really here. What is going to make a difference to someone looking for support with drugs and alcohol, seeking refuge from domestic violence, or wanting love and care as a parent of a newborn child? Can we achieve that better on our own, or by working with others? Will us delivering this contract be the best thing for people in this community or is another organisation better placed? These are tough questions, but with the privilege of this work comes the responsibility to address them.
In my experience, key to being able to navigate this is to be resolutely clear about what we’re here to do – not how big we should grow – and knowing where we are particularly skilled or connected as an organisation to make a difference. We don’t all have to be good at everything; know your skills and find partners who share your mission and values who bring something you don’t. Get as close to people who use your services as possible and bring their insights and voices into decisions. Give power away, and recognise that it’s about them not you.
Resetting and rebuilding how we work together
Rebalancing the Relationship is full of practical examples and recommendations that aim to help organisations of all sizes work together better. Yes, there is a lot that can and should change about commissioning practice to facilitate this. Competitive tendering processes can incentivise behaviours that can support or derail collaboration, for example through different methods of contracting or in how organisations can be supported to share plans and service designs safely.
But it’s also up to us. We need to support and celebrate leaders who champion and nurture collaboration over scale and growth. Encourage funders to support and expect generous leadership in those they fund. As charities, we need more funded opportunities to build relationships and models of commissioning and service delivery that support us to work together in new ways. There is a crucial role for infrastructure bodies like NCVO and ACEVO to share practical support and help to nurture more collaborative cultures and bring people together.
As we look towards spring, and let’s hope towards a time beyond the pandemic, we all have an opportunity to reset and rebuild how we work together. This report is a great handbook for leaders looking to build more collaborative cultures, and will help us make sure that the real power remains with people and communities.