We have worked with several organisations to develop a series of case studies that explain and reflect on their experiences of collaboration. Where possible we have tried to speak to partner organisations to bring in their perspective. The case studies highlight some examples of good practice and learning, but we are not suggesting the organisations featured are perfect.
Working with multiple smaller partners to deliver youth services (Creative Youth Network)
'We can achieve more for young people by working together. We are more than the sum of our parts.'
Creative Youth Network (CYN) is a large charity working with young people aged 8-25 in the South West. They support young people through work in youth centres, advice and support, creative courses and alternative education and careers advice. CYN collaborates with a wide range of other organisations and groups, both within and outside of specific contracts. At times they may compete for work with other organisations, but in the main CYN’s approach is to collaborate wherever possible.
In Bristol, the City Council were to tender the £7.4m contract for youth services. Several months before the tender was released, CYN brought together 14 partners to discuss and develop a joint proposal. The partnership was successful in winning the bid, and despite cuts to local authority funding, working in partnership has meant that more money is coming into youth services in the area. The partner organisations are working with the same number of young people and have significantly improved some outcomes for the area.
Partner organisations include Horn Youth Concern, Oasis, Youth Moves, Learning Partnerships West (LPW), Young Bristol, Aspiration Creation Elevation (ACE), Empire Fighting Chance, Bristol Drugs Project and a number of smaller youth clubs.
A key challenge was establishing early on the areas where organisations’ work or approaches overlapped. Whilst this process can often create tension, the partnership was able to develop an agreement together which focuses on their strengths and areas of expertise. This required open and honest conversations, and some compromises.
In CYN’s experience, some organisations are more open to and better equipped to collaborate than others. Some prefer to focus on their own offer, area or beneficiaries, and others may have had difficult experiences of collaboration in the past or hold assumptions about other organisations, which discourage them from building new relationships. It takes time and openness to work through these concerns and fears together.
The organisations worked together to develop trust and effective lines of communication. In early conversations the partners focused on the young people, what they hoped to achieve together, and where each organisation could add value.
An important factor for CYN is generous leadership, recognising that they may have more resources, power or capacity, and sharing this with others wherever possible. CYN were able to complete due diligence processes and support the smaller organisations to develop their outcomes monitoring, impact measurement, accounts and governance before the bidding process began. This enabled all partners to meet the requirements of the specification, which was particularly important for those working in areas or with people who would otherwise miss out on support.
- Any relationship or collaboration between organisations has to be built on trust and maintaining open and honest communication. Communicate regularly, even if things are going well.
- Acknowledge what power you have or do not have. If you are in a more powerful position than other organisations, acknowledge that and use that power wisely. If you have less power, raise any concerns or fears around this, and discuss how this can be addressed through the collaboration.
- Working through problems and difficulties together strengthens a partnership. Talk through and resolve with any tensions or problems which arise quickly and fairly.
Collaborating to tackle sexual exploitation (Changing Lives and the STAGE partnership)
'There is a sense that together we are ‘more than the sum of our parts’ in our ability to raise awareness and raise the voices of the survivors of sexual exploitation.'
Changing Lives is a major national charity, working with and supporting around 14,000 people each year. They work across four key areas, including
- housing and homelessness
- drug and alcohol services
- women and children’s services.
Changing Lives collaborates with other organisations frequently, including small grassroots organisations and other larger charities. Most of their services are delivered through formal and informal partnerships.
Changing Lives believes that local and national collaboration is essential to address the systemic issue of the sexual exploitation of women and girls. In one example, the Tampon Tax Fund supported the development of the STAGE partnership with five specialist women’s sector providers:
- Basis Yorkshire
- Women Centre
- Together Women
- A Way Out
The partnership provides trauma-informed support to women and girls across the North East and Yorkshire.
The bidding timeline was short which meant that there was limited time to build relationships or define clear accountability structures before the partners began working together. The strong shared purpose meant that the partnership has been able to develop solutions to any questions and challenges which have arisen, but making collective agreements before securing funding would have made the process smoother. Likewise, all partners have built effective and supportive relationships, but it would have been more effective to come together in advance of seeking funding.
For some smaller organisations, there was an understandable level of scepticism about working with a larger charity. Changing Lives worked to build trust by demonstrating a genuinely collaborative approach over time and actively aiming to minimise power imbalances. This has not been a straightforward process. For example, the fact that they have the internal infrastructure to support the partnership inevitably means that they hold greater power regardless of any intentions. Overall being able to draw on these resources has been beneficial for the partnership, but it does have an impact on the balance of power between organisations.
As a large organisation, Changing Lives have gained a greater understanding into the everyday pressures on capacity and resources for smaller partners. All the individuals and organisations have learned about building trust, sharing power and how to build strong effective partnerships. Changing Lives have commissioned the research charity IVAR to evaluate the partnership and aim to use the findings to influence the way large and small charities might work in partnership in the future.
'Partnership working has never been more important.'
The partnership developed a shared vision and acknowledged that their aims could only be achieved together, which was a significant enabling factor. Recognising the unique characteristics, skills and expertise of each organisation facilitated developing solutions and learning together as a partnership.
Changing Lives’ strategy explicitly addresses their responsibilities as a larger charity working within and supporting a wider ecosystem of organisations. This requires them to put the health of the ecosystem above their own competitive advantage. This has required a shift over time in the organisations’ values and strategic aims, from the frontline to board level. Focusing on beneficiaries and their charitable objectives has supported this change and will continue to drive improvement.
- Co-developing a shared vision is key – articulating where all partners want to get to is a strong basis for partnership
- Compassion for other organisations is crucial, each will have differing capacity, history, resources, pressures and resilience.
- Organisations are stronger together and there is no benefit in operating in a way which hinders partnerships.
Funding a smaller organisation to deliver specialist housing support (P3 and Cohort 4 )
'You need to take the approach of supporting each other, rather than punishing or holding each other to account in that moment. If one partner has a problem, we need to work together and focus on how to achieve the best impact for our beneficiaries.' - P3
'Combining the best of both organisations is potentially a very powerful model....We are able to use our peer led strengths to the best capacity only after partnering with P3….collaborating with [P3] who have a strong and uncompromising value base is fantastic!' - Cohort 4
P3 is a major national organisation, delivering a wide range of services, from advice and support to housing, for people experiencing social exclusion. Cohort 4 are a peer support organisation and social enterprise for women based in north Warwickshire. P3 is contracted by the local authority to deliver a variety of support services across the area where Cohort 4 are based. Both organisations identified a range of support needs that often fall outside the scope of existing housing contracts. P3 leased a house and independently funded Cohort4 to provide support there. P3 took on legal, contractual and performance risk. Cohort4 brought expertise, an established reputation and strong links with their client base. Collaborating allowed each organisation to use their strengths.
P3 and Cohort4 have been able to work through any challenges they have faced by being honest and open with one another, and focusing on the people they are there to support. One challenge arose from the drastically different organisational structures and processes. It took time for both organisations to get used to this and to establish the most effective way to communicate and make decisions.
A number of factors enabled P3 to collaborate well with Cohort 4. While there is a big difference in size, both organisations share values and mutual respect. Overperforming on the large housing contract means P3 has more room to absorb any risk from working in partnership. They also recognise the relative power that comes from having well-established reserves and infrastructure. Where P3 often supports around 13,000 people a week, this service supports around 3. The proportionate risk is small and manageable for P3 but the set-up costs and risk would be prohibitive for Cohort4. P3 emphasised the importance of being open about costs and pricing from the beginning, and being realistic about the resource needed to deliver. It is also vital that partner organisations can contribute as much as they can, and can all sign off on key decisions.
- Find like-minded organisations, with similar values to yours.
- Focus on the people and the problem you are trying to solve and work together to achieve outcomes.
- Leave the ego at home.
Supporting smaller charities to develop and take the lead (Shelter and SIFA Fireside)
SIFA Fireside is a large local organisation in Birmingham working with homeless people. Shelter is a major national charity which works and campaigns on housing and homelessness. Over a number of years SIFA and Shelter developed a strong working relationship. In 2016, Shelter subcontracted SIFA to co-deliver a homelessness prevention service, funded by Birmingham City Council. Together they developed a series of proposals for new services to support local needs. One proposal, for the Lead Worker Peer Mentor (LWPM) service, was funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and involves Shelter, SIFA and Mind. Through co-location and joint-working, the LWPM service strengthened the relationship and in 2019, SIFA bid as the lead provider for a homelessness service, with Shelter as a sub-contracted partner.
'Shelter’s development team helped us, looked over the tender and provided assistance. They did this in a way which recognised that we were able to and wanted to take the lead.' - SIFA
Both organisations needed to develop an understanding of the other, of how they operate and the pressures they face. SIFA are often able to make decisions quickly and easily, and have an engaged board. Shelter has more resources and a larger infrastructure, but also have more processes to follow in decision making. Recognising these differences and working together to develop balanced processes which work for both organisations has been important.
Shelter and SIFA have been able to overcome the barriers they have faced in working together through open and transparent communication. SIFA had previously experienced challenges gaining recognition and funding from Local Authorities as a small organisation. The collaborative relationship with Shelter has supported awareness raising with local commissioners, demonstrating SIFA’s expertise and impact, and improving their ability to attract funding directly.
Shelter and SIFA Fireside work with similar groups of clients in the local area and have complementary expertise. Through working together, the organisations have developed shared knowledge and improved the experience for people accessing their services. In the early stages of their collaboration, Shelter were able to utilise their capacity and infrastructure to support SIFA, through sharing knowledge, expertise and resources as part of the application process and in establishing sub-contracting arrangements.
The relationship between both organisations has been key to the success of their collaboration. Focusing on the strengths and offer of each organisation, and how they can best work together to meet local needs has been crucial. Meeting regularly has supported both organisations to develop their own relationships, and to improve awareness of their services and expertise in the local area.
- Open communication: Sharing resources, knowledge and experience is vital to successful collaboration between organisations, particularly those that differ in size. It is important to disregard competition when working collaboratively, to promote the best outcome for the wider service/system.
- Co-location is important to foster strong relationships between organisations delivering services; overcoming physical distance to support clients and promoting access to each organisation’s specialist knowledge and skills.
- All organisations have to be aware of their own approaches, behaviours and language. Small organisations should understand how they operate and work with others, and larger organisations need to be conscious of their language, their approach, and how they can best adapt to support smaller to engage on the same level.
Developing an Alliance to offer community mental health support (Somerset Mental Health Alliance)
'We came together to develop this work because we believe in it and the difference it can make for our beneficiaries...We all had to be okay with not always getting it right.' - Rethink Mental Illness
'All of this is about relationships. It’s not about size, it’s about commitment and culture within organisations. We kept coming back to why we were here, it’s not about any individual organisation.' - Spark Somerset
'In order for everyone to be equal some organisations need bigger steps to be at the same level as others.' - SWEDA
The Somerset Mental Health Alliance was formed in 2019 as part of the new Community Mental Health Framework, which aims to address the long existing gaps in provision and challenges of mental health care and support in the community. Somerset is one of 12 Trailblazers, trialing a new approach to coproducing a local model, funded by the NHS Trust, the Clinical Commissioning Group, and the County Council.
The Alliance is comprised of:
- mental health specialist charities (Rethink Mental Illness, Second Step, Mind in Somerset, SWEDA)
- a local community organisation (the Balsam Centre)
- a grassroots peer support organisation (WATCH)
- a voluntary sector infrastructure charity (SPARK Somerset)
- an older people specialists (Age UK Somerset)
- an organisation focused on the wider determinants of mental illness (Citizens Advice Bureau).
Early in the development of the Alliance, Rethink were democratically voted as the lead partner. Rethink subcontracts to this group of partners, but they are committed to operating as an alliance where all partners are equal.
The partners encountered challenges around communication, internal cultures, appetite for risk, level of engagement of boards and trustees. Building trust and developing relationships between the partners was key to overcoming these challenges.
Rethink acknowledged there could be concerns or fears from the potential partners owing to their size and others’ broader concerns about competition between organisations. Early on they committed to only delivering services if all of the partners agreed. This was an important step in building trust across the partnership.
It became clear early on that the differences in resources and capacity between partners meant that for some the number of meetings and communications was difficult to manage. Through an agreement with the funders, the partnership decided to ringfence funding to provide payments for capacity and attendance for smaller organisations. This supported the thinking, planning and strategic work through the infancy of the Alliance, ensuring that all partners were able to engage.
The partnership is still working through how best to ensure the structure, communications and decision-making processes are effective for all current and potential future partners.
The emphasis on developing the model with the commissioner based on what communities want and need, meant all the organisations involved had to develop a shared vision and goals, rather than focusing on individual approaches or finances from the outset. The Alliance developed terms of reference, which outlined the common goals and aspirations, and roles and responsibilities within the partnership. This process was open and was facilitated by independent chairing from Spark.
Early on, the partnership held a democratic vote to decide which organisation would operate as the lead for the contract, and Rethink was chosen. They were able to utilise their experience and infrastructure as a large organisation to support the partnership to develop the bid.
The partners agreed to allocate small amounts of funding from the contract for micro and grassroots organisations, through innovation and capacity grants. It was challenging to agree a level of funding which should be ringfenced for this, but the approach has supported the Alliance to invest in organisations which would otherwise not be able to engage in their work.
- Building effective and trusting relationships is vital. It’s important to recognise and value the differences and strengths of all organisations and work together to build on these.
- By being collaborative and coproducing the model, the organisations were able to establish innovative and exciting ways of working. Leaving the ego at the door and committing to working together is resulting in much more exciting work.
- There is value in all sizes and shapes of organisation. Larger organisations need to be open to the different ways they can work with and support others, sharing infrastructure and resources where possible.
Collaborating to deliver advocacy services (POhWER and Advocacy Matters)
'Collaboration is very possible. We wouldn’t be where we are and able do the statutory work we have been doing for years if it wasn’t for our partnership with POhWER.' - Advocacy Matters
POhWER is a major charity, and their approach to collaboration has changed over recent years. Previously they tended to operate primarily on their own. Over the past 3-4 years POhWER has made a conscious effort to partner with other organisations, generally operating as the lead provider, and now partner with around 30 organisations. Most of these partnerships are with small organisations, often working at a grassroots level.
POhWER are motivated to collaborate to deliver better quality, holistic services. In one partnership whilst POhWER was by far the biggest organisation involved, another organisation led on the partnership, as this would lead to the best outcomes for beneficiaries.
Many organisations have limited experience of collaborating with others and may not be in a position to meet commissioners’ minimum requirements. In some instances, POhWER takes on additional responsibilities in the early stages of the contract, and works with partner organisations to support them to develop skills or processes over time.
Without local offices and a strong local presence, it can be difficult for other organisations to recognise POhWER as a potential partner. In one example, a local authority had merged a range of services within one framework. The existing group of providers, that were already working well to deliver, were hesitant at first about working with a larger national provider. By having open and transparent conversations, Powher built trust and worked through these concerns. POhWER encouraged the other providers to contact other organisations they collaborate with, to get honest feedback on their approach and behaviours within other partnerships.
In one instance a partnership bidding process became too challenging to manage. The contract was large and complex and as a result it was difficult to agree which organisation would be best placed to operate as the lead. Powher did not bid for this contract because they felt their organisations would work well together.
POhWER have also learned from unsuccessful partnerships or where collaborations come to an end. This can be a difficult process, but it is good for the wider ecosystem for organisations to continue to communicate and to maintain relationships, even where a contract fails or is ceased.
Commissioners can be extremely risk averse, which does not support effective collaboration. POhWER have found that creating a dialogue with commissioners around the value of partnership working and the components of good practice can improve the commissioning process. However, the ongoing and sustained cuts to funding has made this dialogue increasingly difficult to initiate and sustain. The collective voice and power of groups of organisations working in partnership can be very powerful when making the case for differing approaches to or levels of funding in commissioning processes.
POhWER have found that several key factors support effective collaborative working:
- Organisations need to be willing to work in partnership, and that includes taking on risk.
- Partnerships require flexibility, from all organisations involved, including the larger organisations. POhWER at times has capacity and budget to take on more of the work or dedicate more resources than other partners.
- Due diligence processes are vital to avoid and mitigate any risks of working in partnership. These processes ensure that all partners have the necessary structures and policies in place to meet the tender requirements.
- POhWER communicate the risks and advantages of working with others to their board, which can aid their decision making and improve the interest in collaboration.
The partnership between POhWER and Advocacy Matters works particularly well. In this partnership Advocacy Matters have benefitted from POhWER sharing updated policies, procedures and risk assessments during the pandemic. Advocacy Matters were able to share their links to sources of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Thought this is a sub-contracting arrangement, Advocacy Matters are clear, 'This does feel like a partnership. Even though we are sub-contracted, we work in partnership and we are valued'.
- Don’t be scared or hesitant of collaborating with others – it can be challenging but it is often worthwhile, both for the organisations involved and the people they are working with.
- Regular and honest communication is important. At the beginning all organisations need to be open about any concerns or fears, and about their skills, values and expectations. ‘If a partnership encounters a problem, it’s everybody’s problem’, and it is in every partners’ best interest to solve any problems together. All organisations involved need to be able to contribute, share power and be listened to.
- Always keep the focus on the beneficiary’s journey, experiences and outcomes. This supports all organisations involved to identify and build on their strengths, as well as to deal with any challenges which arise.
Developing a large consortium to support women and girls experiencing violence (London VAWG Consortium)
The London VAWG Consortium is the largest coalition of specialist VAWG (violence against women and girls) providers working across London to deliver projects funded by London Councils, the Mayor’s Office for Policing and Crime and the Greater London Authority. It has 28 members, the majority of which are led by and for women’s and BME organisations. Services are co-ordinated through lead organisations, elected by their partners, and operating through an equitable partnership agreement. The Consortium works with over 30,000 women and girls each year, with more than 50% from Black and Minoritised Ethnic Groups.
The Consortium came together due to changes in funding for public services. This amounted to 63% budget reductions by 2018, and meant that councils no longer had the infrastructure to manage multiple grant agreements with individual organisations. The Consortium has an underpinning set of shared feminist and anti-racist values and principles which places women and girls at the centre of collaboratively designed and delivered services. The Consortium seeks to end violence against women and girls through working to achieve equality for women and upholding women’s human rights.
The complexity of delivery and operating models in place across London is a significant challenge. There are a wide range of differences between and within geographical locations and between commissioning bodies, and of local needs. Frequent re-tendering and short-term funding arrangements have presented challenges, as has the reduction of many supporting services previously provided by councils and local voluntary organisations. The Consortium has responded to these challenges by building relationships with pan-London funders and policy makers in order to influence policy and decision-making.
Developing a consortium can be demanding and resource intensive. Organisations have differing cultures and backgrounds and are often pitted against each other in funding environments. The Consortium has responded to this by developing a shared set of underpinning values and principles which recognise and respect the autonomy and self-direction of individual member organisations. The Consortium is governed through a power-sharing model.
Following its establishment, the Consortium adopted a proactive approach to funding, reinforced by the formal statement of their values and principles. It has a non-oppressive, non-hierarchical approach to organising as a group of women’s organisations. This includes bringing new organisations into the Consortium, to develop new or improved services to meet the needs of women and girls.
Effective voluntary sector consortiums require investment, usually over three to five years, to become established. The London VAWG Consortium benefitted, and continues to benefit, from the development support of Women’s Resource Centre, the national umbrella organisation for the women’s sector, and the commitment and time investment of its individual member organisations. It received three years funding towards sustainability from the City Bridge Trust.
- Meaningful and effective collaboration takes time and resources. In developing a formal consortium it is useful to have a trusted intermediary, such as a co-ordinator or an umbrella organisation, which holds a remit for developing partnerships.
- Be clear on and driven by values, purpose and principles. This requires clear and open communication and developing shared goals.
- Understand the funding environment and recognise the power organisations and consortiums have to influence commissioning. Charities and voluntary organisations can provide critical insights, intelligence and evidence and can build relationships with commissioners to drive positive change.
Delivering mental health services with a large network of smaller organisations (Touchstone and Live Well Leeds)
Touchstone provides mental health and wellbeing services to over 10,000 people a year across West and South Yorkshire. They collaborate with a range of organisations and groups, with much of their growth over the last five years through formal partnerships with others. Touchstone works with 16 smaller organisations (most with an income of under £100,000) to deliver the Live Well Leeds Service, a city-wide mild to moderate mental health day service. The commissioner required a third of the contract price to be subcontracted to smaller charities or groups to reach specific communities. Touchstone works with partners to deliver services, but also to share resources and to support business development and sustainability.
As some partners had never been involved in any form of partnership or local authority commissioned contract, Touchstone recruited a Delivery Network Manager to provide support and ensure performance against the contract was managed well. In the first year, whilst all overall targets were met, some partners underperformed. Commissioners were happy with the general performance of the partnership, but it was clear that performance for individual partners needed to be addressed. Several partners had underestimated levels of demand or full costs of delivering support.
The partnership had agreed early on that underspend on the contract could be reinvested. This enabled Touchstone to increase funding for one organisation, which would otherwise have had to withdraw from the contract. Alongside the benefits of keeping all partners engaged, it was also critical because the geographical area they work in was not covered by other partners, a requirement of the contract.
The partnership was also able to review and redesign projects based on service user experiences and changing needs. Touchstone supported one partner to meet the increased demand for support, and another to better identify needs of a local community. One group was supported by the Delivery Network Manager to redesign the groups to make them more active and participative, changing timings and venues to be more accessible.
Providing this support has improved the outcomes for these organisations, and supports the partnership to adapt to changing circumstances. Contracts for all partners have been increased to 5 years, to enable organisations to plan and improve sustainability.
The commissioner required organisations to work together, which was a strong driver for establishing the partnership, and gave clarity on their expectations. An expression of interest process was developed and disseminated to around 300 organisations. Touchstone had long-standing relationships with many of the potential partners, which supported open and honest conversations over the course of 6 months about the opportunities and limitations of the contract, and the value that each partner could bring.
The role of the Delivery Network Manager was important to the success of the partnership. Through regular meetings and direct support the Manager was able to work with the partners to overcome a range of issues.
- Collaboration works.
- It brings the best of a range of providers to improve the outcomes of a greater number of people and across different communities of interest.
- It is worth the hard work, tears and tantrums – honest!