Stella Smith: If you collaborate, make sure you're committed to it

It's key to get the right people round the table and understand what you are trying to achieve

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

"If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together."

If you’ve ever been part of a charity consortium, you’ll know that collaboration can achieve great things, but it can also be frustratingly slow. From who’s taking the notes to whose logo goes at the top of the proposal, all manner of trivial concerns can take hours to resolve.

The drive to encourage charities to work with each other isn’t going to end any time soon, though. Whether we like it or not, we have to get better at making collaborations work, so here are a few tips to strengthen your cross-organisational partnerships.

First of all, be clear about the vision of the collaboration. What will you achieve together that you can’t achieve alone? What are the wider benefits?

Everyone needs to have a shared understanding of the overall aim and a real interest in achieving in it. Aims are often agreed at the first meeting and then lost in the detail of the project work. It’s important, though, to revisit them regularly because it will keep everyone’s attention on what really matters.

Focus on relationships. It’s easy to get so immersed in developing plans and proposals that we neglect our relationships with other network members. When these relationships aren’t robust, though, a misjudged comment or email can cause real damage. Unspoken distrust has been the Achilles heel for many failed cross-organisational networks.

Build in opportunities to get to know staff from the other organisations. Arriving at meetings early or hanging on at the end for a chat is not wasted time but hugely valuable when it comes to building healthy relationships with network colleagues.

Manage your organisational loyalties. There’s a good chance that your own organisation has been in competition with other members of the collaboration at some time or other. Every organisation has myths and rumours about its competitors but if you really don’t trust the others in the network, don’t join. If you are going to be part of the initiativem put the hearsay to one side and engage fully.

Get the right people round the table. Too often charities hear of a new collaborative initiative and, though not fully committed to it, want to be seen to have a presence there.

They then delegate responsibility to a junior member of staff who lacks the authority to take decisions on behalf of their organisation. If they do elect a more senior staff person, they are often short of time and don’t attend meetings or participate in the work until it comes to a critical point when they suddenly appear to bang their organisational drum.

Collaborations need people who are senior enough to make things happen but who are also committed and can find the time to truly collaborate.

There are so many charities, each with its in-depth expertise in discrete areas, but the problems charities deal with are not discrete. The challenges of poverty are affected by issues from education to global warming, and homelessness is affected by issues including housing policy, unemployment and the breakdown of families.

We therefore need to work with others across our areas of expertise. It might slow and painstaking, but if we are going to have a sustainable impact it isn’t going to be quick. We have to learn to work together.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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