Where collaboration starts

By Guest contributor 23 January 2013

Our new report, co-authored with NPC, sets out the four most important principles for initiating a collaboration that can really deliver for charities—and their beneficiaries. I believe that anything a charity does should advance its strategic goals, and collaborations are no exception.

The report isn’t meant to make you rush to collaborate with the next person or organisation you meet at a networking conference. Of course, it’s important to actively seek out potential partners, even when there is no tender or application in sight, so that you have the luxury of time to thoughtfully consider the best way to collaborate for greater impact. But to get started, there are crucial conversations that begin within your organisation to make sure you are “collaboration-ready”.

Trust is a vital component in an effective working partnership and, however good the relationship is between chief executives, it is equally important that frontline staff trust their new partners to do their best. If this isn’t there, resentment may hinder the earliest days of the new venture and jeopardise the entire endeavour. Your team, especially those directly involved in the joined-up work, needs to be consulted, engaged and motivated at every stage of the process.

So how can a chief executive get it right? To get you started, here are a few pointers based on Impetus’ experience of working with many small and medium-sized charities and social enterprises:

Open attitude – Before a collaboration is on the horizon, make it clear to staff that you’re open to partnership, and that you don’t think your organisation has the final word on getting good outcomes. This fosters an open attitude that respects what others can bring to the table.

Respect the experts – Your team is working with beneficiaries every day. They have their finger on the pulse, so to speak, and they know what is needed. When you’re thinking about partners, ask them whose services they think could best complement or extend your own.

Incite enthusiasm – Collaborations need energy to get off the ground. Excitement and enthusiasm will pay dividends when the inevitable problems arise and require the oomph to get through. Sell your team the big picture early on so that they are on board and can imagine the difference that will be made in the lives of your beneficiaries.

Listen to concerns – Your team may have worries, which is natural when there is a major change to the status quo. Some of these may seem small compared to the big picture, but you should make it clear that you want to hear them. It will be important to keep this channel open so that you can assess whether changes to the plan or strategy are necessary to keep the focus on the beneficiary.

Continuous reflection – When work is underway, take the time to ask questions. Not just ‘Is this working for the beneficiary?’, but also ‘Is this making your job easier or harder? Are there problems with the partnership that management can solve?’ By committing to a process of continuous reflection and improvement, you ensure that the partnership is adaptable and truly centred on making a bigger impact.

The “them versus us” mentality will undermine a collaboration faster than anything else. The activities above will help you guard against it and also reinforce that this effort is about getting the best for your beneficiaries. Their outcomes will determine the success of the collaboration and these outcomes are determined by whether your team can adapt to a new way of working. The time you spend engaging them will be the most well-spent in the undeniably time-consuming business of getting a collaboration going—and making it a true success.

Daniela Barone Soares is chief executive of the leading venture philanthropy organisation in the UK, Impetus Trust