Since the establishment of CollaborationNI in 2011, we have supported over 900 organisations in the voluntary, community and social enterprise sectors to work in collaboration.
We usually support organisations to work in one of the following collaborative models – alliances, consortia and mergers. I have been constantly impressed by the innovation in the sector, with many collaborative models leading to more effective services being provided to beneficiaries.
The majority of the collaborations we work with are successful – but occasionally they do not work. These are my thoughts about a recent collaboration which had showed much potential but did not work.
The organisations would not appreciate it if I named them, but I think there are lessons for us to take from why it did not work. The issues listed below were generally a factor for more than one of the organisations.
Organisations do not collaborate – it is the people within them that collaborate
This is the single most important lesson I have learned in this job. We can advise on the most appropriate structures, develop appropriate governance arrangements and underpin it all with an agreement, but if people do not share a common vision for the collaboration, it is very difficult to make it succeed. In this case people issues certainly impacted on the collaboration.
Lack of strategic vision
At the first meeting we had both members of the respective boards and senior staff present. We discussed the strategic vision for the partnership – and, on a grander scale, the opportunity for potential positive impact on the local community.
However despite support and guidance, one or more parties struggled to see beyond the immediate – and focused instead on what could go wrong and the various ‘unanswered questions’.
There is no rule book for working collaboratively. There will always be unknowns. It is natural to feel fearful about the unknown and to be afraid of change.
We facilitated conversations to strategically plan to take the collaboration forward. We made some progress – but for more than one of the partners, concern about the unknown was a serious issue.
Buying in to the collaboration vision
This was a unique collaborative opportunity being offered to the organisations by a statutory organisation. It was hoped that providing an opportunity such as this to a group of community organisations would bring wide and deep positive impacts locally. Each of the organisations had ideas about how they could make this happen together. Indeed it was during these conversations that the barriers appeared to be dropping as they glimpsed a collaborative future that would have a very positive impact on the community.
We challenged the groups to articulate their collaborative vision for the project and set out exactly what was on and what was off the table. It was during these discussions that once again the fear of the unknown became apparent from some of the organisations.
We explained that you do not need all the answers at the beginning of a collaboration – but you should be clear on why you are doing it and what difference it will make to your beneficiaries.
Eventually we were able to negotiate a shared vision and an agreed name for the collaboration.
Leadership versus Ego
As discussions continued, it became evident to me that a leader was emerging from within the collaboration. This person was not the loudest or the most dominant. The individual was actually very accommodating and recognised that it was essential to negotiate to make the collaboration work. The individual also acted in the role of mentor to other members of the group – who were concerned about the potential scale of the collaboration.
If the collaboration had succeeded it would have generated a great deal of media and third party interest. As part of CollaborationNI’s support we explained the importance of speaking with a unified voice in order to promote the collaboration. This was an uneasy conversation and at least one partner seemed to be afraid that their organisation’s identity and autonomy might be lost in the collaboration.
Thorny issue – who should lead?
The collaboration, once agreed, needed to enter into a contract with a statutory organisation. As a consequence, the partnership needed a lead partner.
We discussed what is involved in being the lead partner or co-applicant. In most cases an important criteria for a lead partner is that the organisation must be legally constituted. In this case there was only one organisation that was a company limited by guarantee. The other organisations were unincorporated associations.
In a good collaboration the lead partner is often the lead for the purposes of the agreement only. We developed a collaboration agreement based on the principle of a ‘partnership of equals’ with appropriate governance provisions to ensure equality between the partners.
One organisation was however unhappy that they could not be the lead partner. This was in spite of every reassurance that this would be a partnership of equals.
Our Legal Adviser drafted the Collaboration Agreement and there were a number of sessions to negotiate the terms of the agreement. We reached a stage where the collaboration agreement was almost ready for signature.
And just when you think the deal is done …
A huge amount of progress had been made by this group and, dare I say it, I thought the end was in sight. We were almost ready to prepare a final collaboration agreement for signature. The deal was almost done. And, of course, it is once the agreement is signed that the real partnership work begins.
We then received a phone call that changed everything.
One of the partners had gone to the statutory organisation and tried to do a deal that excluded one of the other key partners!
Our hearts dropped because this completely goes against the essence of working in partnership. As with a dramatic break down in any relationship, it is a very painful experience. There is an immediate loss of trust – and it is very hard, if not impossible, for the parties to reconnect.
We did offer to meet with the partners individually and we offered further facilitation. It was evident however that this relationship was broken and that, in fact, the statutory organisation had lost faith in them as a collaboration.
Beneficiaries lose out
This collaboration is not now moving forward. As a result beneficiaries of all the voluntary and community organisations involved – and in the wider community – have lost out on what could have been a really inspirational project, unique to the local community.
There is some consolation in the fact that the partners had not widely publicised what they were hoping to do. Otherwise the many beneficiaries may not have been as understanding about this lost opportunity.
Looking to the future
It was during the process of negotiating the details of this collaboration that the partners found they could not make the final leap of faith.
However, I do hope that each of the partners will take some time to reflect – and then dust themselves off and embrace collaboration. Maybe it will not be too long before they pick up the phone again to CollaborationNI? I hope so!
Leeann Kelly, Programme Co-ordinator