Working together

This article comes from the Guardian Voluntary Sector News

How to collaborate and partner with other sectors as a small charity

A successful collaboration requires understanding what you want to achieve, finding the right partner and communicating

Becky Slack

Tue 11 Feb 2014 11.13 GMT

Tiger and cub
 Collaboration and partnership is not just for the big boys – small charities can benefit too. Photograph: Glenn Hampson/Newspix / Rex Features

Collaboration, is arguably, the saviour of the voluntary sector. Whether it involves one-off projects, long-term arrangements, or are with voluntary, public or private sector organisations (or indeed a mix of all of the above) there are many benefits to be had, including improved services, increased reach and financial savings.

Cross-sector collaboration is not just for the big boys. Small charities have a lot to gain too – indeed many already are. Data from the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI) shows that 64% of small charities work in partnership with other organisations. However, the extent of this is limited: 62% collaborate on less than 20% of their activities.

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In many cases, the reason for low levels of collaboration is a lack of understanding as to what’s involved, or a fear of failure. The trick is to keep things simple and prepare well.

1) Understand what you want to achieve

Collaboration shouldn’t just be viewed as a money-making scheme. It is also an opportunity to gain access to new skills and networks, and to further the goals of the organisation – all of which should be taken into account when researching potential partners.

However, the most important consideration of all is the potential value to beneficiaries. “Too many people put their charity first and the cause second. Keeping beneficiaries uppermost in mind should help guard against this.” says Alex Swallow, chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition.

2) Find the right partner

Do your homework and create a wish list of ideal organisations to work with. Don’t rule anyone out due to their size or shape, instead focus on their vision, mission and values, and how their strategic goals might complement your own, says Tom Levitt, a consultant on cross sector partnerships.

For example, small businesses with their combined turnover of £1,600bn and 14.4 million employees offer a “hugely unexploited resource”.

Conversely, Working Chance offers an example of a small charity working successfully with big international brands. It collaborates with prisons and businesses to ensure that female offenders are able to find employment upon release, and counts Virginamong its partners.

As it highlights on its website: “We understand our employers’ priorities as well as their brand values and, because we also know our candidates well, we can match them with individuals who are going to help move their businesses forwards.”

Public sector collaboration is also possible, although this period of reform has made it difficult to assess the overall strategic direction for many local and national services. Desk-based research and conversations with colleagues in other organisations can provide useful insight into ways of working and opportunities available.

3) Set roles and objectives

Make sure that the goals of all parties are identified and establish a plan as to how these will be met and the role each partner has to play.

Crucially, small charities should not undersell themselves, says Pauline Broomhead, chief executive of the FSI. “Small charities have a vital role to play in the strategic planning and design of new initiatives as they are at the forefront of local services to local people. The value of this should not be underestimated”.

4) Put in place policies, systems and processes

Partnership work may be beneficial but it can also be fraught with dangers, including loss of flexibility and autonomy, dilution of brand and key messages, and a lack of consistency that can lead to beneficiary confusion.

Indeed, the main reason why charities get into difficulties is not thinking all aspects of the partnership through properly, reports the Charity Commission. A lack of legal compliance (in particular regarding fundraising regulation), a failure to identify risk or establish an ethical policy, and limited or no monitoring and evaluation being cited among the most prevalent problems.

Effective planning – and a solid partnership agreement that confirms these plans – is therefore essential.

5) Communicate, communicate, communicate

Keeping partners in the loop will make them feel engaged, valued and respected, and so effort should be made to provide regular updates, not just regarding the partnership but relevant external developments too.

Ensuring everyone is speaking the same language is also essential. The world is full of jargon, much of which is open to interpretation.

If things aren’t going to plan, the way in which you communicate will be critical; care should be taken to explain any issues carefully and considerately. Frame the conversation in the context of your shared goals, be open and suggest positive solutions.

Much of how the partnership is perceived will be down to the way in which the story of its achievements is told. A good communications strategy will inspire all partners and take them on the journey with you.

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