We need to talk

Hamlet -s“To collaborate, or not to collaborate…” as Hamlet almost said. “That is the question.”

Over the last couple of months, I’ve met with over two dozen leaders of organisations from different parts of the charity sector. Some I’ve worked with in the past, some I haven’t, but all of whom have been generous enough to share stories and examples of things they’ve tried: things that have gone well, and things that, on occasion, haven’t. Many of which have remarkable similarities.

This honesty and candour, and the willingness to share openly both good and bad, is neither unique to the third sector nor ubiquitous within it, but it is immeasurably more abundant and evident here than it is anywhere else I’ve ever worked. It is a wonderful attribute, and one that I sense has much greater potential than is currently being tapped.

Back in December 2017 the incoming Managing Director of Solutions for RNIB, Scott Lynch, explained in a Third Sector interview, some of the problems they’d had in their past, one of which was the amount of money they’d been losing on their consulting work. I wish I could say they were alone in that position, but there are plenty of other non-profits struggling to break even on training and consulting services.

And yet, there are others in the sector who are doing extremely well in those same services, making healthy profits and attracting increasing numbers of clients who want access to their expertise and to adopt their practices. Few, if any, are in direct competition. Most have very different, often complimentary areas of expertise, and many have learned their painful share of lessons on the way to that success. Lessons that could save others a great deal of time, money and heartache, as they each wrestle with reinventing the sales, marketing and pricing wheels.

I’ve met several great organisations in the social justice arena working with ex-offenders to help them get back into employment. A few weeks ago, I met with a fantastic international development organisation that’s helping economically isolated and migrant communities into work. A week later, another conversation on housing associations kept coming back to their desire to help beneficiaries overcome the employment barrier. A week after that, I facilitated a group of half a dozen charities and, once again, employment and economic inclusion was high on the agenda.

Uniquely, that last occasion was set entirely in the context of collaboration, of sharing learning, research and resource, rather than reinventing in isolation. It couldn’t have been more effective in demonstrating to me the value of different non-profits coming together to create something that’s potentially far greater than the sum of their parts.

Across the sector there are a wealth of collaborations going on right this minute, most will be adding tremendous value to those involved and their beneficiaries, but the majority will inevitably be around interventions, programmes and service delivery, and most will be between organisations working with broadly the same groups of beneficiaries, in roughly the same location. They are a good thing, don’t get me wrong, but they are often collaborations of convenience, partnerships of practice, rather than a transfer of experience and expertise in both directions.

A couple of months ago I organised a meeting between two of my clients. They were in completely different fields, working with completely different beneficiary groups, but many of the fundamental challenges and opportunities were remarkably similar, and each was struggling in areas the other was succeeding. The two hours we all spent together were incredibly rewarding and before the session had finished, business cards were being swapped and follow-up conversations arranged all around the table.

It can feel hard to justify taking the time to contact, to sit and talk with peers from other charities, but taking the team out of the office for a few hours to learn directly from the experience of others, can save weeks, sometimes months of stumbling in the dark and reinventing the wheel. This is not something to try and fit in around work; this is something to fit work around.

“There is more knowledge spread across the sector, Horatio, than is dreamt of in the office of any one charity.” I’m fairly sure Hamlet did actually say that one.

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