In 2017, I embarked on the Clore Social Leadership Programme and started a year-long process of discovery when I learnt more about myself and the social leader I am.
Through this process we explored the six capabilities of social leadership through a framework which outlines the attributes, behaviours and skills required for successful social sector leadership.
I’ve been thinking a lot recently about one of these capabilities – that of generous collaboration.
But first, what is collaboration.
A dictionary definition reads as “Collaboration is a working practice whereby individuals work together to a common purpose to achieve business benefit. Collaboration enables individuals to work together to achieve a defined and common business purpose”.
In the social sector you could replace the word business with the word social; so essentially collaboration is about working together to achieve a common social purpose.
Ok, so what is generous collaboration? Well, generous collaboration is thinking about working together first – before thinking about going alone.
Charities, social-enterprises, non-profit making organisations (whatever your legal structure) - most have to run as a business. With resources coming in (staff, cash, volunteers) to produce an output or outcome (through a specific service delivery model) and to do this without losing money (or having reserves to prop it up elsewhere) means you need to operate in a business-minded way.
"Like relationships, it can be painful when collaborations don’t work. And like relationships, we can all need support to pick ourselves back up from these disappointments."
There can be a natural desire to deliver more by yourself, because the more you deliver, often the more resource you gain. It’s a simple mathematic equation. But the concept of generous collaboration challenges this. It turns the equation on its head and rather than the focus being the resource you can generate its about the social impact you produce. That becomes your goal instead. You give up a slice of the market, or a higher margin in pursuit of greater impact.
Collaboration is all about relationships - sharing who you are, your strengths and weaknesses, and working together to create something which is better than the sum of your parts.
TLC: Talk, Listen, Change is all about relationships too – safe, healthy, happy ones so it is no surprise that I think TLC should be a generous collaborator in the way that we work and as a social leader, that is what I should aspire to be too.
I’ve spent some time reflecting on when collaboration has worked for me and when its not, to understand what I think my key take aways are...
1. When collaboration works its fun!
Recently, we met with colleagues from Stockport Without Abuse and Yaran CIC just to spend some time creatively thinking about the strengths of our different organisations and the different people we work with to see if we could create a better service working together.
We’re 3 different sized organisations, with different histories, structures and missions but share the same values and drive to improve the lives of local people.
Some coffee, biscuits and lots of doodling afterwards – we had a plan.
We navigated some difficult conversations – including who would lead a partnership – but being able to rest on our shared values meant that we could come up with a pragmatic response which felt acceptable to all.
My key learning: Shared values are key to collaboration.
2. Collaboration can be difficult and complex but its worth persevering.
TLC are part of the Prevention Alliance in Stockport working with 6 other partners: Age UK Stockport, Synergy, Stockport Homes, Stockport Council, Nacro and Threshold. We are commissioned by Stockport Council to deliver services to vulnerable people in Stockport through an Alliance Contract. Our vision is to empower people, connect communities and improve lives through the shared values of genuine, creative and together.
We came together as a group back in 2014 in order to bid for this work. We were successful and have now been commissioned from 2015 – 2020.
Building relationships and gaining trust quickly was essential for us to share the responsibilities of a joint bid. We’ve had numerous difficult conversations – about finances, employment, policies, service model – you name it, we’ve discussed it.
The key to making the Alliance work has been the relationships we’ve built between the Alliance partners. Relationships that have taken time and effort. Relationships that have been tested by differences of opinions. Relationships where we’ve stayed firm to our principles.
My key learning: Open, honest and trusting relationships are key to collaboration.
3. Collaboration can have surprising results
Six months ago I shared a drink with Nick Bent, Co-founder and CEO of The Tutor Trust and also a Clore Social Fellow 2017. I’d found an opportunity that I thought we might benefit from exploring together. Using The Tutor Trust’s experience in providing tutoring support and TLC’s experience in providing counselling we created the concept of the Right Angle project. A unique partnership, working with children educated in five (now seven) different alternative education providers across Greater Manchester, working on both the causes and effects of disengagement from education.
A few months later – the amazing (and somewhat surprising) news arrived that we’d been successful in securing over £500,000 to deliver this joint project over 2 academic years.
My key learning: You can be brave and creative through collaboration, harnessing strengths you both bring to the table.
4. Sometimes, it doesn’t work
Unfortunately, not all relationships are safe, healthy and happy. Unfortunately, not all collaborations work.
Sometimes the timing is wrong, the values don’t fit or there is a lack of transparency. Sometimes organisations don’t act with the integrity you had hoped they would.
Sometimes strategic priorities diverge rather than align.
Like relationships, it can be painful when collaborations don’t work. And like relationships, we can all need support to pick ourselves back up from these disappointments. Support from mentors, colleagues, Boards, action learning sets. Whether your support comes from.
My key learning: Collaboration doesn’t always work but support is available so you don’t go it alone.
Does generous collaboration make me a better social leader?
Yes I think it does
Does it make me safer, healthier and happier in the way that I work and the outcomes we achieve for the people we are here to help?
Yes I think it does too
Would I recommend it?