As Charles Darwin said:

In the long history of humankind, those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed.

Looking at the challenges ahead, such a quote seems quite apt for organisations in the community and voluntary sector today. Working for Prospectus, we come across many organisations with the noble intention of collaborating with other partners in order to improve their services, and it is a credit to the community and voluntary sector that collaboration is on the rise. What is noticeable though, is that there is limited knowledge about what collaboration is, what it entails, and how to go about it in an Irish context.

Definitions for ‘collaboration’ are many, but the one that captures the real essence of what we are about comes from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations in the UK, who define collaborative working as:

A partnership between two or more voluntary organisations. Organisations can work together in a spectrum of ways, from informal networks, through joint delivery of projects to a full merger. Collaborative working can last for a fixed time or be permanent.

There is a whole spectrum of options to choose from when thinking about collaborating.

In our experience, some people in the community and voluntary sector get a sense of apprehension and anxiety when collaboration is mentioned, with the first thoughts being ‘Merger’, ‘Take-Over’ and ‘Redundancies’. Be assured that collaboration doesn’t necessarily mean merger, and that different arrangements entail differing levels of integration. They range from loose networks that might have the sole aim of simply engaging in knowledge sharing, to more formal alliances where organisations can share back office services or run a joint programme or event, to the most formal types of integration, those being mergers.

Prospectus Strategy Consultants recently worked with a number of The Wheel’s members in order to explore or progress their collaborative agendas. We worked with organisations in a host of areas, including;

  • Community drugs teams
  • Rural community transport providers
  • Childcare agencies
  • Family support services
  • Respite providers
  • Counselling services
  • Education and learning organisations
  • A National women’s organisation and
  • An organisation that provides services for people isolated in the community

The engagement, commitment and willingness to collaborate by all of the people involved was astounding. And it is exciting to know that there is appetite for collaboration at an organisational level within the sector.

The main drivers for organisations to consider entering into a partnership with another organisation are:

  • Ensure a better provision of services
  • Avoid duplication
  • To gain a stronger voice in the sector
  • Financial sustainability
  • To increase efficiency and effectiveness

Benefits of collaboration, we have been told by various community and voluntary leaders that:

  • Costs have been reduced
  • Service provision has increased
  • Organisational confidence has risen
  • There is a renewed focus and energy
  • Internal operations have been transformed

Having been through a collaborative initiative of any type, organisations are in the enviable position of being able to outline the pitfalls to be avoided, for those following in their footsteps.

So what are the top five pitfalls to be avoided?

1. It has been said that unrealistic timeframes are a major pitfall, and to ensure that realistic and achievable deadlines are agreed at the outset.

2. Ensure that roles and responsibilities are clear to all involved before entering a partnership of any type.

3. Taking on a wider brief than your organisation is capable of delivering on.

4. Having the wrong type or number of people in the project team. Aim to have a team of a manageable size, consisting of people that are enthusiastic and open to change.

5. Ensure that expectations of what is achievable are set and managed throughout the process and try to notch up the ‘quick wins’ early in the initiative in order to sustain momentum.

We have found from experience that there are certain ingredients, or critical success factors that are usually needed when a collaborative project succeeds. The main ones are listed below:

  • Honesty, trust and respect
  • Belief, commitment and perseverance
  • Board buy-in and involvement from the outset
  • A willingness to compromise from all parties involved
  • Communication, communication and more communication

If you are thinking of engaging in a collaborative initiative, take the above tips and pointers into account to ensure the best chance for success. And finally, don’t be afraid to take that initial step…

Coming together is a beginning, staying together is progress, and working together is success.

Henry Ford