Lessons from the programme: Enabling collaboration

Published11th March 2019

Collaboration is harder than it looks. In this learning blog, Rachel Tait, a Senior consultant at NPC and Inspiring Impact programme manager, shares what she’s learned about facilitating collaboration in the programme team.

Inspiring Impact supports people who work or volunteer for charities, funders, and social enterprises across the UK through a combination of free online resources, peer learning networks, and grant funding, so you can plan, understand, and improve your impact.

So who’s behind this programme? Well, it’s been a collaboration since it was started in 2012. My colleagues at NPC and I love talking about how important collaboration in the charity sector is. But even if you are committed to the idea of collaboration and you think it’s the best way to achieve a goal, it’s really hard in practice. Who knew?

Inspiring Impact has a core team of seven people across six organisations, plus an additional 6-10 people in supporting roles, a steering group and dozens of other stakeholders. We’ve spent little time together, we’ve got our own priorities, our organisations are different sizes, and we’re spread out across the four nations. It sometimes feels like the logistics are stacked against us, but we work hard to overcome those challenges. And I think someone is doing something right because the programme is still going strong almost seven years after it was founded.

We geared up for a new phase of the programme in summer 2018 with a refreshed partnership and new funding from the National Lottery Community Fund and the Access Foundation. We spent 2-3 months on relationship building and establishing trust in the partnership. That might sound like a lot, but when you’ve got three years ahead of you there’s no point rushing into activities.

Here are a few things that helped our collaboration:

  • Invest time at the beginning: We hosted a 2-day ‘away day’ and paid for it with our core programme budget. The objectives were getting to know each other, understanding our roles, and developing a common vision. Every partner facilitated a session, which distributed the leadership throughout the team.
  • Be honest about uncertainty: At the away day, a new partner shared their feeling of ‘imposter syndrome’. There was a domino effect around the room… turns out everyone could relate to that feeling! Acknowledging it meant people felt more comfortable asking questions and exploring grey areas.
  • Be honest about the past: I am honest with partners and our steering group about what’s not gone well in the past. We don’t want to get bogged down in old problems, but acknowledging past tensions can set the expectation that there probably will be bumps in the road at some point and we’re capable of solving problems together.
  • Make time to be social: When we are together, we try to share a meal or hang around for a drink at the end of the day. We see more of each other’s personalities, spark new ideas- and it’s just fun!
  • Learn about each other’s contexts: I’ve visited 2 of the 5 partners in Liverpool and Edinburgh, and hope to get to Belfast and Cardiff by this summer. It’s helped me understand how they work, how Inspiring Impact fits in their organisation, and it’s nice to meet their colleagues too.

Here are some articles about collaboration and leadership that I’ve been inspired by recently…

  • This article from Stephen Hale, CEO at Refugee Action, arguing that collaboration is part of the solution to the challenges facing the sector
  • This blog from Duncan Shrubsole at Lloyds Bank Foundation about when collaboration can achieve much better results than mergers
  • This article from Stanford Social Innovation Review about catalysing collective leadership to tackle social issues
  • This blog recapping the merger vs collaboration debate at NPC’s conference last year
  • This NCVO guidance on working together to achieve a shared mission

I’d love to hear from others who work on collaborative programmes. What’s helped you? What do you wish you’d known when you started? What advice do you have for others? Get in touch via @Inspiringlmpact or inspiringimpact@thinknpc.org

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