The key to collaborative success

By Dan Corry 22 January 2013

The charity sector exists to do the best it can for those in need. It is this sense of mission that makes it so unique. But charities must continually ask themselves: are you helping those you wanted to? And are you helping them in a cost effective way so that the resources you have make the greatest possible difference?

Organisations can only get better by understanding whether or not they are successfully achieving the outcomes that they seek. As we heard from David Robinson of Community Links at our conference last week, impact measurement is fundamental to improving mission, and should inform strategy, tactics and everyday behaviour. And thankfully, it is becoming a growing priority for charities.

But sometimes the only way to be really effective is to work with others. This might be because you can’t scale up on your own, or because the needs of your beneficiaries are complicated and require expertise in other areas. Or it might be because as the people you help progress along their journey—a care pathway for example—they need different types of help at various stages. As resources become increasingly scarce, the need to provide the right services at the right  time and avoid unnecessary duplication across the sector is becoming ever more critical.

Right now changes to government commissioning are also driving the collaboration agenda;  in many cases, in order to be in a position to compete for public service contracts, charities need to be collaboration-ready. As NPC’s survey of charities’ experiences of commissioning When the going gets tough showed, this is partly because contracts are getting bigger and many charities struggle to pitch for them on their own, and partly because contracts are increasingly  offered  on a payment by results basis—and hence in arrears and with a lot of risk attached. This drives charities into needing to work with bigger players, including for-profit players, with decent balance sheets.

So these are major incentives to collaboration as a way to access work,  grow and improve services. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

Some charities are trying to create consortia so they are in a position to compete; others are joining up with corporate suppliers. As well as the benefits already discussed, these often contribute to new learning. And that’s why NPC and venture philanthropists Impetus Trust  joined forces to research some of the preconditions for collaborative success. In a report published today, Collaborating for Impact, we look at some of the crucial factors:

  1. Keeping the focus on beneficiaries: any collaboration should fit clearly into the charities’ strategy on getting the best possible outcomes for the people that they exist to help.
  2. Understanding the financial implications: as agreements and contracts grow in complexity, charities need to invest in understanding their costs and cash-flow to ensure that collaboration is viable and finances will not put a strain on the partnership.
  3. Understanding and demonstrating impact: evidence of impact attracts potential partners and offers reassurance around the quality of organisations’ work.
  4. Treating organisational culture as key to success: certain charity habitssuch as the tendency to fiercely defend independencecan be a barrier to effective collaboration. Here trust is key, and the focus on beneficiaries should cut through cultural concerns over credit, competition and sovereignty.

Collaborations can be tricky to navigate and there are many accompanying risks. But where care is taken to align incentives and get the cultural match right, collaboration can move us forward in meeting the needs of beneficiaries has the potential to really improve the sector’s collective impact.

Watch a summary video of what was said: