Collaboration can facilitate vital innovation, but it can also be a rocky road. What can you do to help the course run smoothly? LGBT Consortium’s Paul Roberts shares his top tips
At LGBT Consortium, we’ve worked collaboratively with many different organisations, from grassroots voluntary groups to million-pound turnover organisations. One thing we’ve learned is that collaboration is a constant process of learning and adaptation. The following top tips will hopefully give you some insight from our experiences and show you how to manage and make the most of collaborative opportunities that present themselves.
1. Be open minded
Many collaborative partnerships arise from specific funding opportunities or a campaigning opportunity that can appear at short notice, which inevitably brings with it particular complexities. My first bit of advice is to not let this deter you from being innovative and looking at things in new ways. This is what makes the voluntary and community sectors such an exciting environment to work in. We are at the forefront of innovation, and collaborative partnerships open even more doors to new innovative practice.
2. Set a clear brief early on
Everyone involved in any collaborative opportunity needs to know what it is, why it is being explored and what each party is likely to get from the collaboration. For me, this means the first thing to create is a collaboration briefing. Include a range of information like an overview of the opportunity, the funding (if there is any) available, what the reason for the collaboration is, who is leading and what could be expected of other partners. This will become a useful reference point during any development and also delivery period.
3. Have honest and clear expectations
When exploring the available opportunities with your chosen partners, be crystal clear on what everyone’s role will be. Who leads? Who are primary partners? Are there secondary (more non-delivery) partners needed? Iron all of this out early in the process. There is nothing worse than putting everything in place and receiving the go ahead when several partners start questioning the level of input they are expected to make.
This isn’t to say things might change later down the line, as I am pretty certain they will. However, general principles of expectations can be clarified very early on.
4. Develop a clear memorandum of understanding
Call it whatever you like – a memorandum of understanding, a concordat, a partnership agreement – this is going to be an incredibly important document to get sorted early on. If you are faced with very tight timescales for a particular funding opportunity then it might not seem to be the priority – make it one! This document is going to govern your guiding principles, mutual understanding and confirming those clear expectations on all parties as discussed above. It doesn’t need to be the longest document in the world but should be something everyone happily signs up to.
This is something that can be worked on at any time, with a template version written ready at a moment’s notice and ready for tweaking. General principles and ways of working are likely to be similar across any collaborative opportunity so pre-prepare a draft or check out some examples from other voluntary organisations.
5. Mix it up
Collaboration is at its most exciting when it affords the opportunity for a diverse range of organisations to get involved. The risk is that when timescales are tight when new opportunities arise then we revert back to what and who we know already. This is fine for an approach, but start looking now at who else you might want to collaborate with in the future and make those connections.
A mix of size, geography and focus has helped us to achieve some of our most successful partnerships, including a two-year hate crime project, engaging 35 partners from grassroots voluntary organisations through to million-pound turnover organisations. Admittedly, 35 partners is a lot and takes some serious project management, but don’t be held back by the fear of the unknown.
6. Consider your capacity
Given what I have already said about bringing in a diverse range of organisations for new opportunities, one thing will be clear: everyone’s capacity and capability to engage fully will be different. Those organisations with full-time staff are likely to find it much easier than those who are entirely volunteer led. Be honest with each partner about what they can bring to the table and if one partner’s input is simply (e.g.) reviewing resources or running a single focus group, yet another partner could get a new full-time employee out of it, then that is fine. Working within the parameters everyone has definitely makes for healthier collaborations.
7. Ensure you have strong leadership
Every collaboration needs this vital ingredient. Leadership doesn’t equal making all the rules or dictating what the future shape will be, but it does involve having to be strong and sometimes make difficult decisions. Ultimately, you’ll likely need a lead body and this will require acute financial accountability and the ability to monitor effectively across the collaboration. Be prepared to ask questions that might make you feel a little bit like the funder, because in some circumstances if the funding is channelling through your organisation, you could well be!
Within strong leadership is also the ability to get the most out of all the partners and realising the full potential of the opportunity presented. Be bold, be creative and listen carefully to everyone’s input when creating the finished product. All partners should be equal, no matter their size or capacity, which can be difficult to manage but achieving it is the sign of great leadership.
8. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Whether it is collaboration, or any other issue or situation, communication is key and you should never underestimate this. Of course, it is a constant balance of providing people with enough information (in both directions) without bombarding partners with so much information that they lose interest or focus.
Create a clear communications strategy when you start the collaboration, so everyone’s expectations are clear. As the lead body, how often will you update everyone on progress centrally? As partners, how often should conversations be taking place with other partners and the lead body? Make this all as clear as possible. Set out a schedule of expected communication and stick to it.
There is nothing worse than a collaborative opportunity happily travelling along when someone realises everyone is doing something entirely different (I have been there and believe me, it can be very stressful).
9. Review your progress
Collaborations are not fixed beings, and will always benefit from regular review. If there is funding involved, this can be more tricky as certain parameters will be fixed, but tweaks can always be made. What you thought might happen at the beginning can change depending on a range of factors, so build in time for collaborative partnerships to reflect on everything to date and agree the tweaking needed. Most importantly, this helps keep everyone interested and on the same page.
Paul Roberts is chief executive of LGBT Consortium