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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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3 Reasons for failure

Of course, not all collaboration is focused on complex social problems, but the experience of struggling to sustain collaboration over the longer term is a common one.

Activity 2 Sustaining collaboration

Part 1

Timing: Allow about 15 minutes

Think of an effort you have been involved in to work collaboratively that failed to sustain itself over the long-term – by long-term we mean an attempt to collaborate over a period of years. For example, a long-term strategy to increase access to the arts in a locality which quickly ran out of energy; a cross-sector 5-year strategy to improve educational outcomes in a locality, which ended with changes in government policy; or an inter-agency plan to deliver an annual event over a 10-year period that ends after only two years.

In your learning journal [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] , list the reasons this attempt at long-term collaboration failed, and then uncover our responses in the comment below. Make sure you title the post with the week number and the number of this activity, Week 8 Activity 2.


Table 1 Reasons for long-term collaboration failure
Personality differences
Changes of personnel
Competition between collaborating teams/organisations
Changes in policy – at national or local levels
Political change in national or local government
Slow pace of progress
Failure to agree basic ground rules / terms of reference
Failure to achieve sign-off from senior managers
One partner pulls out due to changes in their organisation
No decisions are made
Powerful partners dominate
Structural arrangements for collaboration change
No one takes responsibility
Everyone is too busy
Nothing gets done
Collusion between other partners
Disagreement on the aims of the collaboration
Realisation that collaborating organisations each have different aims
Too much time spent reaching agreement to act
The issue we were addressing together has changed

You may have thought of more reasons than those we listed. In general though, we can summarise these reasons as follows:

  • first, there are reasons concerned with the collaboration itself – the difficulty of reaching joint decisions and of doing that again and again; the realisation over time that collaborating organisations do not have the same interests or aims; the failure to take responsibility; the lack of clarity as to who is responsible for what; and competing accountabilities.
  • second, there are reasons concerned with the external environment – the changing nature of government policy; changes in the collaborating organisations themselves; and the changing nature of the issue you seek to tackle together.

If collaboration is so difficult to sustain (and sometimes even to get off the ground), then it is perhaps unsurprising that Huxham and Vangen (2005) advise, ‘don’t do it unless you have to’. You might add ‘stop doing it if you don’t need to continue’. Paradoxically, knowing when and how to say ‘stop’ to a specific partnership or collaborative project which has lost its way might be the best way to maintain the potential of longer-term collaborative relationship. In part 2 of this activity, you will reflect on whether any of the collaborations you are involved in should be brought to an end.

Part 2

Timing: Allow about 20 minutes

Reflect – why does your organisation need to continue to collaborate with others? What is it that you can achieve together through inter-organisational collaboration that is sustained over 2, 5, 10 or even 20 years? Are there any partnerships or joint projects that you should end now because they have little value for the future?


It is never easy to bring a collaborative partnership to an end – and certainly not easy to be the one to stand up and say the collaboration has no future. However, as you have seen throughout this course, leadership sometimes means being willing to say difficult things.