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Working in the voluntary sector
Working in the voluntary sector

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4.2 Barriers to partnership working

Partnership working is usually a lengthy process. The team will usually go through the stages of team formation that you read about earlier, but with added layers of complexity.

Organisational culture

Different organisational cultures present one potential barrier. All organisations have their own cultures, which relate to ‘the way we do things around here’. Often this is so pervasive through the organisation that people do not necessarily realise they are making assumptions or doing things in a certain way.

The staff and volunteers might not realise that other organisations might do things in very different ways. For example, one organisation might emphasise punctuality, and if individuals turn up late for meetings they might be seen as disorganised and less trusted. In another organisation, meetings might be seen as less important and it might be acceptable to turn up late if another task needs completing.

If these two organisations begin to work in partnership, assumptions will be made early on, possibly causing some arguments, but hopefully the organisations can work out the rules of the group and meetings before it results in conflict.


Differences between organisations potentially create communication problems, particularly through the use of jargon, which is different from everyday language and can be bewildering for other organisations. It might even make some people feel excluded from contributing to discussions. People seeking wider input from other groups need to make their language more accessible and inclusive in order to reduce concerns about power imbalances in the team. It can often be useful to have training days to help participants express themselves and gain confidence, and enable the different groups to share thoughts on their own jargon and language use.

For partnerships to work successfully, all parties need to feel they have an equal voice and be able and willing to share power. Representatives from smaller voluntary organisations have often expressed concerns that they do not have a position equal to others in the partnership because they do not have financial power and may feel their input is tokenistic.

Of course, this varies depending on the context, and often voluntary organisations will have initiated the partnership and be the ones leading it. Furthermore, partnerships often provide great opportunities for different people to lead groups as they cut across traditional organisational ways of doing things, hierarchies of staff, and so on.

Where partnerships are large and complex, communicating with everyone can be a challenge. Sometimes there can be too many emails and an ‘information overload’. In other circumstances, people may worry they are being excluded and that decisions are being made behind the scenes by more powerful partners. Lack of communication can lead to distrust and, ultimately, the partnership failing.

Activity 6 Skills for partnership working

Timing: Allow approximately 10 minutes

Now that you have read about partnerships as well as teams, what skills would be needed to make the partnership successful?

One way to think about this might be to picture yourself at a meeting where things are not going well. What skills do you have that could help?

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Some of the skills mentioned in research on partnerships include:

  • good communication skills – listening and talking
  • good at chairing meetings and facilitating discussions
  • negotiation skills
  • networking skills
  • empathy with others and respecting different points of view
  • building trust with others
  • being prepared to learn about other organisations, their ways of doing things and what resource constraints or other challenges they might be dealing with
  • being prepared to delegate as well as to allow others to take the lead.

You may have thought of other skills. Working in partnerships, as well as in teams more widely, requires a lot of skills but mainly requires the ability to see other people’s points of view.