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Is collaboration always the answer?

Dr Carol Jacklin-Jarvis questions the 'warm glow' surrounding the common exhortation to collaborate. This is the first blog in a series of three she has written for the Centre for Voluntary Sector Leadership. You can also read her second and third blog.

It is often argued that collaborating with other organisations – within and across sectors – is a route to organisational sustainability. Think tanks, consultants and policy advisers all urge voluntary organisations to collaborate in order to maximise resources, and deliver ‘joined-up’ services that are both effective and efficient. Sharing resources, swapping skills, and developing new areas of shared knowledge can all be immensely useful to organisations facing increased demands on limited resources (see for example Localgiving’s recent report). 

Indeed, in the current context of resource constraints, collaboration (in the form of partnerships, alliances, and even mergers) is sometimes seen as the only hope for organisational survival, particularly for small voluntary organisations struggling to sustain important work in local communities. 

Unfortunately, we also know from research that the processes of collaborating consume enormous resources (human and otherwise) – in relationship building, agreeing terms of reference, negotiating, and continually referring back to collaborating organisations with competing interests.  Sadly many of us who have worked in the sector have probably spent huge amounts of time in collaborations that become tied up in these processes, and in the meantime make little difference to the individuals and communities we seek to serve.

Last week (13-18 June) was Small Charity Week, a great opportunity to celebrate the work of the UK’s vibrant smaller voluntary organisations and the impact they have on individuals and communities.  If like me your attention was elsewhere last week, it’s worth looking at the Foundation for Social Improvement’s report Collaboration issued to mark Small Charity Week, and to encourage more collaboration between small charities. 

The report reminds us that small local charities represent an estimated 97% of the sector (see NCVO’s Almanac data), and urges those organisations to seek out more collaborations to address social problems at the local level. Research participants speak of increased access to resources and cost reductions achieved as a result of collaboration.

The report includes useful – and encouraging – case studies.  It is also a reminder that, when developing collaborations, organisational interests need to be weighed in the light of the potential to make a difference to individuals and communities.  The most obvious example here is that sometimes the best way forward for those served by voluntary organisations is to move beyond a friendly partnership with another organisation and towards merger, even though the original organisation will disappear as a result.

There are some tough questions here for leadership. I will come back to these in coming months (with my colleagues) through this blog, but for now I pose them for further reflection:

  • Is collaboration with other organisations inherently a good thing? 
  • If inter-organisational collaboration increases access to resources, but also consumes resources through its processes, how might leaders weigh the potential of collaboration against its costs?
  • When considering whether to collaborate or not – do we clearly separate the potential organisational gains (resources, organisational survival) from the potential long-term gains for the individuals and communities the organisation serves?

There are no easy answers to these questions, but perhaps we can start by thinking carefully about what we mean by sustainability – organisational survival or making a difference over the long-term to individuals and communities in need?  The two are not necessarily incompatible, but neither are they necessarily the same.

Read further about the potential and challenges of inter-organisational collaboration:

Huxham,Chris and Vangen, Siv (2005) Managing to collaborate Abingdon, Routledge.

23rd June 2016

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