Working collaboratively with other third sector organisations should be instinctive for charities, according to Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Family Lives.
The national family support charity, which provides telephone, email and online support to families as well as working in schools, children's centres, GP surgeries and prisons, has always referred its service users to other support organisations. But Todd says that in recent years the charity has become more engaged in strategic partnerships to enhance its value to service users - and to save money.
"I introduced collaborative working three years ago when I joined the charity," says Todd. "The intention to work collaboratively came before the funding cuts. The voluntary sector should always be looking for effective collaborations: it should be part of our DNA." He adds that this helps avoid duplication of services and makes them as inclusive as possible.
Family Lives currently works in partnership with charities including Families Need Fathers, the childhood continence charity Eric and Richard House Children's Hospice. The charity Marriage Care reroutes calls to the Family Lives helpline and, in turn, Family Lives refers back parents who request face-to-face counselling.
"We found that we had the capacity, experience, infrastructure and commitment to their values," says Todd. "If we did not collaborate, services would have stopped and become less available or less robust."
Since July 2011, all calls to the Family Lives helpline between midnight and 7am are redirected to the Samaritans helpline. This enables the charity to continue offering 24-hour support: Todd estimates that this partnership has saved his charity £75,000.
He says: "Lots of our collaborations occur through previous relationships established by the policy and communications teams and my role as chief executive. Through our direct connections, we hear of organisations we could work with. For example, we work with the children's hospice because a percentage of our callers address significant health issues and we're in a position to offer wraparound, 24-hour helpline services to families the charity would not otherwise be able to provide for.
"A lot of our networks already exist. When there are areas that we want to improve on, we begin the conversations: this can take a long time, perhaps upwards of a year, to gain trust and confidence."
Todd believes it is important for charities to question whether they are user-led. "They should think outside the box, not be territorial and look at new ways of working to benefit the user," he says. "If users are at the heart of services, it is easy to ask who we could work in partnership with."
When forming a new partnership, Todd ensures a memorandum of understanding is drawn up to outline expectations and allow both parties to evaluate the service delivery. He says a pilot period is essential and it is important to ensure that senior teams are kept fully informed.
He adds: "Competition within the sector is important to ensure efficiency and effective delivery, but organisations should be open to entering into collaborative working if they do not have the capacity to survive without collaborative support. For us, the key thing is the families that we help - that is the end goal, not that we do everything with them. It is important to recognise your limitations."