Partnership working in the VCSE sector – Why would you want to do that?

This is a guest blog from Craig Bankhead, CEO of Gateshead Older People’s Assembly, relating to a project he has undertaken within his Clore Fellowship studies alongside a group of other Clore fellows.

For many of us, working in partnership with other organisations is as much part of the fabric of the voluntary sector as trustee meetings or an office full of biscuits (maybe that’s just me). And more recently, the pandemic has been an enormous catalyst in coercing reluctant partnership workers to support their communities collaboratively.

However, for some organisations, partnership working sometimes feels like a step too far out of an already stretched comfort zone as they long for the familiar, like an investigative arm emerging from a warm duvet on a cold January morning. What if they run off with our idea and take all the credit? What if they don’t do any work but still take half the money? Could this damage our reputation? All of these are legitimate concerns and can form lasting barriers to success.

Charitable trusts and foundations, commissioning organisations and other investors in our sector are increasingly encouraging partnership working and collaboration. One of the main drivers of this shift from the perspective of the investors is to achieve greater reach through the avoidance of duplication, a factor that perhaps has more salience now that financial resources are more limited.

That’s all well and good, I hear you say, but what’s in it for us? Why should we work with them when they do something totally different? For one thing, effective partnerships can bring more to your beneficiaries than they get from each organisation alone – a voluntary sector version of the Aristotelian observation that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Some classicists believe Aristotle came to this conclusion upon observing Art Garfunkel’s solo career.

Another benefit to your organisation is that it opens up another way of finding solutions. Maybe a partner organisation has a more effective way of solving problems, or perhaps you each have different but complementary ways of developing effective projects. Ben Cohen has severe anosmia (lack of a sense of smell) and his business partner, Jerry Greenfield can taste perfectly fine. Cohen’s inability to smell and taste means he varies his diet using different textures. This led to him adding chunks of chocolate and caramel to the flavoured ice creams that Greenfield had developed, and the rest was history. One of the most effective ways of developing and strengthening your own organisation is through working with others. Not only do you learn new ways of developing ideas, you can also discover your own personal or organisational strengths through collaboration.

As part of the work I’ve been doing towards my Clore Fellowship (turns out it was nothing to do with hobbits but I persevered nonetheless), I have been working in partnership with a group of voluntary sector leaders to help create a resource for those in the voluntary sector who are considering partnership working. We interviewed a number of voluntary sector leaders and asked the following questions:

  • Tell us about your partnership.
  • How did you come to be involved in this partnership?
  • Why do you think it’s successful?
  • What barriers, difficulties or obstacles have you had to overcome?
  • What advice would you give to other organisations entering into partnerships?
  • How do you think this partnership could be maintained?

We recorded their responses on Zoom and these have been edited together and grouped around each question so that they can be easily accessed by anyone who is interested in finding out more.

You can find the resource on the Clore Social Leadership website – I hope you find it useful.