Collaboration: A practical guide for charity leaders

Posted 31 May 2019 | Blog | Collaboration

As always, when you start talking about or focusing on something, you suddenly hear about it everywhere. Collaboration is that thing right now. At Pilotlight we’ve been focusing on collaboration since 2017, and have continued to see numerous examples across all the points on the collaboration spectrum.

However, this year it feels like it’s much higher on the agenda for charity leaders and we’re seeing merger or takeover increasingly discussed or being actioned by our partner charities. Not wholly surprising when the Charity Governance Code explicitly states that collaboration should be looked at, but it's funding constraints that are more often than not driving organisations to look at alternative ways of working, and commissioners seeking more efficient ways to manage contracts.

At any one time Pilotlight’s team of Project Managers will be working with over 65 charities and it’s from this vantage point that I wanted to bring you a practical guide on how to approach collaboration.

1. Be clear about who you are as an organisation and the need you are meeting

This seems like an obvious point, but often the best points are, and we just need reminding. We find that the most successful collaborations take place when organisations are crystal clear about who they are, what they stand for and how this is meeting a need (that has been clearly defined). Without such clarity, you cannot expect potential collaborators to understand you and this will only lead to confusion and misunderstandings later down the line.

To help find clarity you can:

  • Test how clearly you articulate who you are. You can check understanding by simply asking internal and external stakeholders to tell you what they think you do. Does it all align or is there confusion?
  • Look at your outcomes data against what you state you wish to achieve. Does it match?
  • Conduct a needs analysis to ensure you really are up to speed with the needs of your service users. Publicly available data sources are a great place to start, for example the Office of National Statistics, or data from larger charities, although this will need further investigation. Ensure the data you look at is specific to your locality as the national picture can be very different to your own local experience.

2. Know who else is serving the needs of your beneficiaries

Creating a really clear picture of who is operating in the same space as your organisation is fundamental to understanding the potential for collaboration. Rather than developing a competitor analysis consider developing a ‘collaborative landscape analysis’.

Think about your beneficiaries and all the services that are supporting their needs within your locality. Use a simple table to list the organisations, the beneficiaries, the turnover, the services, the approach, the reach, the funding model, their values and anything else you deem relevant. Mapping this out will include both direct competitors and complementary offerings giving you a solid view of what’s on offer, the levels of duplication and the opportunities for collaboration.

If you’re wondering how you’ll have time for this research, it’s actually a perfect discrete piece of work for an intern or a university student looking to gain experience in the charity sector. We recently had an intern from UCL refresh our collaborative landscape analysis, saving us time and allowing the individual to understand the charity sector even further.

3. Decide what you want to achieve through any collaboration

Now you have a solid understanding of who you are, what you do, the needs you meet and the collaborative landscape, you can begin to really consider collaboration and what it could mean for your organisation, and more importantly for your beneficiaries.

At a board meeting have a ‘generative discussion’ about collaboration, asking yourselves the following questions:

  • Would collaboration enable us to meet our mission and the needs of our beneficiaries more effectively?
  • Would collaborating reduce duplication?
  • Would collaboration enable us to enhance our offer to beneficiaries?
  • Would collaboration enable a more efficient use of resources?
  • Should we continue to compete? Why?
  • What are the benefits and disadvantages of collaboration? Are there other options that would get us where we what to be?

Collaborating with other organisations is not without its challenges, but if you work through the above, you’ll be prepared to start your journey.

Here are some useful resources that may help: