The third sector faces a host of daunting challenges: rising demand for our services, a chaotic political environment, the deep divisions exposed by Brexit, critical scrutiny of our practices and more. I argued here a few months ago that collaborative leadership is the silver bullet we need to help overcome them all. I haven’t changed my mind. We’re at the foothills of where we need to be, but there are some deep-rooted reasons why we often don’t collaborate. If we’re going to reach the summit, we need to name and overcome them.
There are many types of collaboration: at the shallow end of the spectrum organisations join up to deliver a specific service or on private advocacy to achieve a specific outcome. In the middle there’s longer-term collaboration to achieve specific goals such as the Homelessness Reduction Act. At the deep end there is deep collaboration on organisational strategy. My interest is in the middle and deep end, where there are big challenges but the greatest potential gains.
At Refugee Action we’re seeking to practice and promote collaboration in our field, in our sector and, crucially, beyond it. Since November 2018 more than 170 organisations have joined our Lift The Ban campaign coalition, including the CBI, the TUC, the Church of England, and think tanks across the political spectrum.
So why don’t organisations collaborate? I think there are four main problems that we need to overcome. Let’s talk about the easier ones first.
First we don’t do this partly because many charity leaders lack experience and knowledge of deeper forms of collaboration. Our default mode is to wrestle heroically with all the many challenges we face. Few of us have experience of long-term, successful, collaborations.
This is eminently solvable. Infrastructure bodies such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Acevo could promote the tools, offer training to help people and share success stories to celebrate the impact collaboration makes. Leaders who are advocates of this could share their experience.
The second obstacle is that too few resources go into helping the third sector to be greater than the sum of its many parts. Collaboration is far more likely to succeed when it is brokered by a neutral party that is trusted by all. For example, there are more than 900 charities in the UK primarily focused on supporting refugees and asylum seekers, and many more community groups. But no organisation is focused on maximising their collective impact. Other sectors have bodies such as Bond and Homeless Link, and are stronger as a result.
This problem is also relatively easy to overcome, if organisations and their funders recognise the need for a central function. It might not be particularly costly. In our field, campaigning to end indefinite detention has been transformed by the Detention Forum, with a coordinator working about two days a week.
The third and fourth obstacles are harder to overcome. The third is competition for funding, both from the general public and from trusts and foundations. This is a huge factor in holding back collaboration. Running a charity is a challenging and often precarious vocation. In the sector where I currently work most funders offer grants of between £30,000 and £50,000 a year. That’s far too little to incentivise organisations to develop shared services and plans, and is a major factor in organisations collaborating far less than they should.
I know many funders are desperate to increase collaboration among the organisations they support. It will demand changes in their practices. There are really exciting signs that some funders are thinking seriously about this. Six funders have recently come together to recruit a director of collaboration to find ways for them to work better together, and this is a priority in the National Lottery Community Fund strategy.
Charity leaders don’t have to wait for funders to change. They can help to make it happen by taking joint initiatives and seeking support for them. Greener UK is a fantastic example of this: fourteen environmental organisations came together to form it, recognising the threat Brexit posed to UK environmental standards. They put in some of their own resources and established the necessary decision-making processes. Funders have responded with significant support. As a result the environmental sector has been more influential than any other on the Brexit process.
The fourth and final obstacle is perhaps the toughest. Let’s be frank: some charity leaders don’t want to collaborate. They’re focused on their profile and/or their organisations, not on achieving more with others. In my ideal world, enlightened boards would rein them in. Until then it’s up to the rest of us to call out selfish behaviour and to inspire the waverers to work together for our common good.
If others don’t want to collaborate, going it alone is the only and the right thing to do. But with the right training and support, and encouragement from funders, we can mainstream collaborative leadership and serve our causes even better than we do today.
Stephen Hale is chief executive of Refugee Action