Don’t underestimate what it takes to collaborate

By Guest contributor 26 March 2013

Kevin Robbie, Executive Director of Employment at SVA, has over 15 years of social sector experience in the UK. Prior to joining SVA, Kevin was on secondment to the UK Government’s Cabinet Office as an advisor on both impact measurement and the role of social enterprises in employment creation for those that are long-term unemployed.

On the topic of collaboration and what it takes to collaborate successively, I wanted to share some insights gleaned from a six year project to address employment exclusion in Queensland.

In the $5m plus project that Social Ventures Australia (SVA) facilitated, government bodies, corporates and non-profits came together to support 57 social enterprises. The result was the creation of nearly 500 jobs for disadvantaged groups in the labour market, including Indigenous Australians, long-term unemployed, youth at risk or those with mental health issues.

Employment exclusion is a complex problem—one that no single organisation can solve. The solution requires collaboration. In this case, the project increased its impact by drawing on the  expertise and/or funding of multiple organisations to create an integrated approach to investment in social enterprises. Acting as facilitator, we started small with just three parties: SVA, a city council, and a corporate. This grew into a broad collaboration between three city councils, four government departments, two philanthropic foundations, numerous corporates providing pro bono expertise and the social enterprises themselves.

Some of our insights into the opportunities and challenges of working in collaboration resonate with and build on the report published by NPC and Impetus Trust’s, Collaborating for Impact:

  1. Aim for one shared agenda, so that you can keep your eye on the goal and enable various bodies to participate and co-invest.
  2. It takes a lot of time to develop effective and trusting partnerships. We built the relationships gradually; trust grew as we delivered on what we said we would do and through regular and consistent communication.
  3. Developing a sense of equality between funders and the intermediary helps to create a collaborative culture. Initially, we were simply seen as another service provider; however,  the relationships became more collaborative as they grew and this changed what we could achieve.
  4. Getting social procurement off the ground requires a champion in the procurement department to help cut through bureaucracy. This involved a great deal of effort because the council or government purchasers hadn’t necessarily bought in to the project agenda; they had other priorities such as price, quality or risk management.
  5. Implementing one reporting framework for impact measurement makes for much easier communication between the participating organisations. For us, this was hard to achieve. While we had one reporting process to the steering group, it was only in the last phase that we moved to one reporting framework for the funding organisations.
  6. Involving funders and other stakeholders in the process helps them to better understand the time and effort that collaboration takes and to recognise the value of the intermediary or facilitator. Funding is then more likely to meet the project’s needs.

One of the overarching lessons was just how much time and effort it takes to create and maintain collaborative relationships—it’s an ongoing activity. A lot of frameworks put building trust at the start and don’t emphasise that you’re cycling around the framework. Sometimes there are new people in the organisation or new leaders introducing different priorities. We found we had to come back to nurturing the relationships again and again.

Importantly, we brought the funding bodies on the journey with us so that, as they built their expertise in social enterprise development, they also began to recognise the value of investing in a skilled intermediary organisation that could deliver the required support, as well as hold the evolving collaboration together.