Craig Dearden-Phillips: Why do charities dance to the tune of collaboration?

It's a discordant one, says our columnist: joint working seldom delivers what it promises

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

I have long wondered how much donated money is wasted in the charity sector on useless conversations and events along the lines of: "Let's collaborate!"

While great for sales of Danish pastries, most such occasions seldom result in anything beyond warm words and additional meetings that nobody really wants.

I encounter a different attitude to collaboration in business, where it is viewed as a necessary evil. Here, you actually avoid working with others if possible because it is expensive in terms of time and money - risky, too. Indeed, if the costs of collaboration pile up faster than the benefits, it might well kill your business.

This shapes behaviour. Today, if I am asked for coffee to talk about joint working, my immediate reply is a polite version of: "What's on the table, mate?" If there isn't a chunky piece of attractive business to divvy up, or a no-brainer of a project, then my answer is normally "no thanks".

The rule at Stepping Out is that a proposal to collaborate has to be pretty damn special to justify the faff involved in working with other organisations to deliver it. One plus one must equal four, or preferably 64.

By contrast, in the third sector we are far too eager to collaborate. Our default position is to say "yes!" rather than "why?" We are socialised to see collaboration as incredibly healthy - a goal in and of itself - regardless of how ill-conceived or nebulous the idea in hand may be. Even if we are privately thinking "this is pants", we are scripted to look for a window in our diary to discuss it further.

So why do we all dance to the discordant tune of collaboration? One reason is that, as the 'for-good' sector, we are slaves to an orthodoxy that collaboration always leads to better outcomes. Few openly question what is, at best, a highly debatable point.

My own view is that, beyond single-issue campaigns (where collaboration between charities often works well), joint working normally goes against the grain. It seldom delivers half of what it promises. When I was a charity chief, I despaired of most of the delivery partnerships I got us into. Most were messy, over-complicated and poorly executed. Real head-in-hands stuff.

Why doesn't collaboration work in practice? One reason is that it is normally just too complicated to organise. But the larger reason is that the sector is far more competitive than we admit in public. Most charity leaders secretly want to outshine their rivals rather than collaborate with them. You see this from the knights at the very top of the sector right down to your own town or village. Just like in business.

So all of this mealy-mouthing about collaboration saddens me. In business, at least everyone is out about wanting to win. Firms prefer to go it alone; charities should be similarly honest. Give it a try. When a charity with a nice-sounding but vague idea next taps you up for a meeting, find a nice way of pushing back. Go on, you know you want to.

Contact Craig, who writes in a personal capacity, at www.stepping-out.biz.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is managing director of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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