light bulbs drawn on a blackboard

Collaboration—friend or foe?

By Christine Scullion 3 October 2016


Collaboration has two definitions in the dictionary. It can either be the action of working with others to produce something…or it is traitorous cooperation with the enemy! This double edged sword is perhaps one reason why many organisations approach collaboration with extreme caution—or avoid it all together.

The Robertson Trust where I work has always guarded its independence, and until the 1980s it functioned completely anonymously. But over the past ten years in particular, a wind of change has blown through the Trust, sweeping away the cobwebs and culminating in the formation of an Innovation and Learning team earlier this year. The Trust now has a strategy that deliberately articulates the wish to influence policy and practice through sharing our learning about what does—and perhaps more importantly what doesn’t—work to address specific areas of need.

In past times the thought of an independent trust working hand in glove with the government—who were potentially seen as the source of social problems—would have been unheard of, falling into the ‘traitor’ definition of collaboration. But we’ve learned that achieving sustainability and the spread of successful, evidenced interventions was our biggest challenge—and we weren’t going to be able to manage it alone.

This explicit desire to influence mainstream policy and practice doesn’t come without its challenges. But we face these challenges for a very good reason. In the past we have seen plenty of examples of excellent third sector projects that produced great outcomes for individuals, families and communities. Where we have struggled is the next phase of engaging with others to encourage the spread and sustainability of what works. We now recognise the value of investing in relationships with key leaders in the public sector who understand this approach—and investing alongside them with the explicit aim of achieving change at scale.

We work hard to build trusted relationships both with the third sector organisations we fund but as importantly with key public sector partners, in particular Scottish Government and Local Authorities. Our evidence suggests that if they are active stakeholders in the journey from the beginning they are more likely to buy into any potential solutions further down the line.

Take the Reducing Reoffending Change Fund, the only one of the Scottish Government’s Change Funds that is frequently quoted as having made a difference. £2m of The Robertson Trust’s funds were invested alongside £12m of Scottish Government funds to support a national mentoring scheme to support young men and women with convictions.

This co-funding arrangement enabled us to have influence by project managing the third sector services, supporting the evaluation of the service, and being around the table when the future of the service in the longer term is discussed. Funds are now assured without our input until April 2018 and the sustainability of a mentoring service beyond this is looking hopeful.

Our experience of funding alongside the public sector has been positive. And it is slowly allowing us to evidence positive changes that this partnership approach has achieved. We are still in the early days of our collaboration journey. But so far it has enabled our funding to achieve so much more than we ever could have on our own.

Christine spoke about Innovations in funding at our annual conference NPC Ignites on 12 October 2016.