Emerging findings

These findings are drawn from initial analysis of:

  • academic and grey literature
  • a call for evidence
  • sector engagement
  • a series of in-depth interviews.

These activities have focused on understanding the perceptions of individuals and their view of their organisation’s experience. They are not necessarily representative of what is happening in all organisations and across the whole sector. Further analysis will be done to explore the feedback we have received from organisations.

Throughout this document we refer to larger and smaller organisations. Small organisations might find it harder to survive the competitive environment. However larger organisations can still face challenges in working in collaboration when there is any imbalance of power. We have heard of organisations with incomes of £500,000, £5m, or even £50m that have difficult experiences of working with organisations bigger than them.

1.Competition is having a negative impact on the sector, organisations, beneficiaries and communities.

This is happening in a variety of ways, including:

  • Competition for funding from commissioners between larger and smaller organisations. Larger organisations often have the advantage, especially where there is a focus on price-based competition and larger contracts. Organisational practices include the use of smaller organisations as bid candy, entering new markets without prior experience and submitting loss making bids.
  • Competition between organisations similar in size. Large organisations express concern about behaviour of other large organisations. Smaller organisations are merging to be able to compete and they say they find it easier to work with each other.
  • Competition for funding for fundraised income, as well as income from trusts and foundations.

2. Commissioning and procurement practice can incentivise harmful organisational behaviour, but this behaviour is also driven by internal culture and ways of working.

There is a perception in the sector that some larger organisations are:

  • driven by market growth, operating more like for-profit businesses than charities.
  • treating contract delivery as the job rather than the vehicle.
  • succumbing to mission drift and bidding for contracts when they are not best place to deliver the service.

Some larger organisations described a period of broad and rapid expansion, in terms of the type of work they do and where they deliver it. This strategy was often pursued in the hope of improving impact and sustainability. However, a number of organisations have changed their approach upon realising it was leading to poor quality work and financial deficit. Organisations that changed their approach to become more collaborative and/or focused, highlighted a range of internal changes to:

  • governance and leadership
  • roles and departments
  • strategy and vision
  • engagement of staff and service users
  • culture of collaboration and learning.

3. Organisations collaborate for a number of reasons, but often because it is essential to deliver the work.

Often collaboration is pursued to win a bid or to bring in an essential specialism or geographical presence to deliver the work. Other drivers include wanting to increase scale and quality of impact, to reduce competition, to make resources go further, to learn, to solve difficult problems and to bring innovation and variety.

For some collaboration is simply part of the culture of their organisation, or how they like to work as a leader. These organisations often explicitly articulate their desire to support others, especially small and local.

4. While there are examples of organisations working well together, many organisations experience challenges when working with others.

Frustrations about working with others were expressed by both smaller and larger organisations:

Smaller organisations subcontracted by a prime describe a loss of autonomy and control. This can harm long term collaboration, trust and relationships between organisations. There are a few examples of larger organisations being subcontracted by smaller ones, but they buck the wider norm of larger organisations operating as the prime.

A small number of organisations told us primes have subcontracted work to them in order to reduce the competition in the market by undermining the sustainability of the subcontracted organisation. Others expressed concern at other organisations appropriating their ideas.

Organisations of all sizes expressed concern about the quality of work from partner organisations. Many struggle to adapt to the ways of working of the partner organisation. For some larger organisations it is the lack of process and procedure in place in smaller organisations, particularly for safeguarding and GDPR. For some smaller organisations it is bureaucracy and lack of flexibility in larger organisations.

5. Organisations are not using the full range of mechanisms to work in collaboration.

The most common mechanism among voluntary organisations bidding and delivering with a partner organisation tends to be through a prime/sub relationship. Some larger organisations think this mechanism is easier, preferred by commissioners, and sometimes better for subcontracted organisations that don’t want to take on risk and liability.

Organisations with experience of being subcontracted cite mixed and often quite negative experiences. Often these organisations are smaller than the prime, but they can vary in size. Some larger organisations have shared examples of trying to support subcontracted organisations by offering more flexibility, equality and mutual learning. However, loss of autonomy and trust is a recurring theme from subcontracted organisations.

Consortia are another mechanism, but many organisations express negative views and experiences of consortium working, often citing the complexity and cost of these arrangements. Other mechanisms like special purpose vehicles, limited companies and alliance contracts were mentioned only rarely as ways of working together.

A number talked about collaboration outside of the bidding process. This included sharing infrastructure or training, local staff connecting their service to another, influencing commissioners, distributing funding after they have won the work, and buying in services from smaller organisations.

6. While some organisations say they recognise the value of others, there is a lack of trust within the sector

Several larger and national organisations recognised smaller organisations could offer support that is personalised, responsive and connected to the community. But many said they can work in this way too, especially if they have very devolved ways of working.

Some smaller organisations struggle to recognise the benefit of larger organisations often because they have had bad previous experiences. When the benefit is recognised, it is often expressed in terms of access to funding or benefits that come from scale or market position.

Smaller organisations often view larger ones in a distrustful manner, expressing a lot of anxiety about loss of control or appropriation of ideas. They also struggle with what they perceive to be a patronising attitude from larger organisations.

7. Trust, time, flexibility and communication are vital for good collaboration.

Participants said collaboration is more effective when partnerships are not only prompted by the publication of a tender.

Communication was a key theme when participants discussed collaboration and managing relationships with partners: it needs to be frequent and face to face, to build trust, set expectations, address issues early, and monitor impact. Several organisations subcontracted to a prime express frustration at not being properly included in the bidding process and meetings with commissioners, and not being able to shape their involvement.

Some larger organisations recognise flexibility and support are vital to successful collaboration, but to varying degrees.

8. Organisations often make very quick decisions about what work to bid for, and whether to bid in collaboration.

Due to the short time frame given to respond to tenders, organisations often make very quick decisions about what work to bid for. Within this timeframe, factors like financial viability, geography, alignment to mission and strategic aims tend to be prioritised. Organisations tell us they think about whether partnership is needed to deliver the work. There are organisations that seem to take a more collaborative approach when they have the time to work proactively on an idea to pitch to funders.

While larger organisations considered the existence and quality of an existing provider and a number expressed a broad desire not to ‘step on others’ toes’, it was rare for organisations to expressly say they would not compete with small, local organisations.

9. There are limitations to the methods used to find and approach potential partners, and several organisations think others don’t take the time to understand the sector.

Some larger organisations take quite formal approaches to finding partners, closely aligned to or replicating the commissioning process. Several participants emphasised the role of personal relationships to find partners. Other methods include desk and online research, occasionally being approached, using local infrastructure organisations such as councils for voluntary service (CVS). Several larger organisations emphasised going to existing trusted partners. When selecting who to work with participants said quality, capacity, values alignment and personal rapport were important factors. Some larger organisations emphasised the value of letting local staff lead on partnership development.

10. Some organisations recognise behaviour in the sector needs to change, but struggle to acknowledge that should include their own.

Most organisations believe commissioning and procurement practice needs to change. Some larger organisations have said their approach cannot change until the environment changes. Only a few organisations recognised they have some power to change the way they work in the current system, often citing recent changes made to their approaches.

Some organisations explicitly expressed a responsibility to work with and alongside each other. Organisations of various sizes called for larger voluntary organisations to recognise their position in the ‘ecosystem’. Some emphasised the need to respect smaller organisations, expand their range of partners and listen to local people.

Larger organisations suggested smaller organisations could be more open to collaboration with larger organisations. It was suggested that smaller organisations could also work to develop, for example, better impact measurement.

11. What do we mean by collaboration?

Throughout this project we have come across several organisations of different sizes working in a different way to collaborate with or work alongside each other. This collaborative practice is broad and varied. In many cases it means working in partnership to deliver a contract, but it can also include the following:

  • Not bidding for work that would be better delivered by other organisations.
  • Advocating for better commissioning and procurement practices alongside smaller organisations.
  • Bringing in another organisation as a subsidiary while also retaining key aspects of that organisation.
  • Sharing learning, skills and resources (outside of co-delivery) to support other organisations.
  • Facilitating or convening partnerships to deliver work, share knowledge and solve problems
  • Investing in partner organisations to help them develop for the future, such as building impact measurement capability.