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Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations
Collaborative leadership in voluntary organisations

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5 Weaving the fabric

Imagine a large woven fabric, which is continually remade by multiple hands. Over years, successive weavers introduce different textures and colours; they fill in different sections of a developing picture; the pattern changes; threads are pulled out by accident or design; edges are frayed; but still weavers return to add their own distinctive contribution. Observers recognise an emerging picture, but their perceptions of that picture vary from one another. The fabric is always unfinished, the picture always emerging; yet the fabric itself endures – it is resilient if misshapen, the product of multiple weavers over a period of time. In leadership terms, the collaborative fabric is made through multiple practices that are often incomplete and partial; they are relational, creative, serendipitous and unexpected, as well as intentional, purposeful and planned.

A photograph showing two adults and a child working on a woven piece of fabric.
Figure 2 Weaving together

Our research suggests that the experience of collaborating across organisational boundaries over the long-term and through changing structures feels something like participating in the weaving of continually remade fabric (Jacklin-Jarvis, 2014). For individuals this continual remaking involves engaging with four key elements of the collaborative fabric:

  1. the processes of collaboration – attending meetings; determining and participating in decision-making processes; negotiating (formally and informally); keeping records and challenging records made by others; communicating across organisational boundaries
  2. relationships – networking and building relationships with key contacts
  3. policies – implementing, challenging and responding to policy change
  4. identities of collaborating organisations – ensuring the organisation’s identity is sustained through the challenges of collaboration.

But these elements of the fabric are not stable over the long-term. They change continually, whether by design or default, as they interact with one another to provide a continually dynamic context for collaborative practice.

You will be able to identify all of these in Ellen’s story – changing government policies; the processes of the regional/local partnership; the relationships between individuals who make things happen behind the scene; and the continuing endeavour to maintain a distinctive identity for Family Time. You probably recognise this dynamic context for collaboration in your own practice.

How, then, might the picture of continually rewoven fabric help you to think about the leadership work of nurturing collaboration which, as in Ellen’s example, is continually changing and adapting to a context in which process, policy, relationships and identity, are each themselves continually adapting and inter-relating?

The activity that follows is designed to help you think through a long-term approach to collaboration through the picture of the collaborative fabric.

Activity 3 Continuing collaborative relationships

Timing: Allow about 90 minutes

This activity takes the form of a mini-research project focused on a continuing collaborative relationship between your organisation and another organisation – whether within the voluntary sector or in a different sector.

To complete this activity you will first need to identify a collaboration between your own organisation (or teams and department) and another (or several others) that has endured over a period of time – an obvious example might be where your organisation has collaborated with the local council, or with a similar organisation in a neighbouring locality. You may need to search your organisation’s archives and/or interview a couple of individuals who have been with the organisation for an extended period of time.

Once you have identified your example, download the Collaborative fabric template [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]   and follow the instructions below.

  1. Complete the sentence at the top of the template by writing down the long-term collaborative advantage that is the focus of this inter-organisational relationship.
  2. Mark on the timeline the dates of the collaboration – you may want to mark dates into the future.
  3. In the first box above the timeline titled ‘Structures’, add the different forms or structures that this relationship has taken. For example, it may have started as an informal agreement to act together, then formalised into a partnership with terms of reference, delivered a short-term project, then re-structured due to external factors. There may also have been contractual agreements between the two organisations and along the way, the two organisations may have entered collaborations with other partners, or participated in collaborative forums or partnerships. Mark all of these on the timeline.
  4. In the second box above the timeline titled ‘Policy’, add examples of national or local policy that impacted on how the collaboration progressed. These examples of policy might take the form of formal policy documents issued by public agencies, or a more localised interpretation of policy.
  5. Now, think about the individuals involved in nurturing this inter-organisational relationship. Who were they, how did they first meet, how did they communicate with each other, and with others in their organisations? Have the same individuals stayed involved with the relationship between organisations through its changing forms and structures, or have the individuals changed? In the first box below the timeline titled ‘People’ write in the names or job titles of these individuals.
  6. In the second box below the timeline titled ‘Processes’, write in the processes through which individuals from each organisation related to each other and then the processes through which they linked their own organisation to the collaboration. These processes may be formal meetings, terms of reference, informal discussions, email updates, meeting minutes, negotiating a formal agreement, shared newsletters or joint training. (Don’t worry if you don’t have all the detail available to you, just add as many ideas as you can.)
  7. Finally, return to the timeline, and use a different colour to identify any significant ways in which your organisation was changing over this period of time. These might be changes in size or focus, significant new projects, or a more fundamental change of strategy or purpose, or culture. For the purposes of this exercise, we see these as changes that impact on organisational identity.

Check through your work – you should be able to identify issues related to people (and the relationships between them), processes (formal and informal), policy (national and local) and organisational identity. Think about how these interact, impacting on each other and on the forms and structures of collaboration that you identified on your timeline. You may want to take a different colour to mark-up these inter-relationships.

Share your work with a colleague. Ask them to reflect back on whether they recognise the pattern of change and development that emerges from this activity.


Don’t be surprised if this ‘map of collaboration’ looks messy and/or incomplete (we would be surprised if it didn’t). This messy and incomplete picture simply reflects the suggestion that inter-organisational collaboration resembles the continual reweaving of unfinished fabric.

The activity draws your attention beyond structure and form to four key elements of the collaborative fabric as they interact over time. These key elements are:

  • the relationships between key individuals
  • the processes through which individuals and organisations interact
  • the policy context
  • the changing identity of collaborating organisations.

The picture that emerges is likely to show individuals and organisations collaborating in multiple ways – through formal agreements, projects and partnerships; informal arrangements and interpersonal relationships; through processes that have been agreed and set down in writing and through processes that have emerged. It will also begin to show how this collaboration is impacted by change at the policy level and at the level of organisational identity.

The point of the exercise is to help you reflect on how this inter-organisational collaboration has been sustained over the longer-term. More specifically, reflect on how relationships, processes, policy and the changing identity of your organisation have impacted on the collaboration over time – bearing in mind that the exact nature of the inter-relationships between these elements may be hidden by time. We suggest you reflect on this first in your learning journal in a post titled Week 8 Activity 3, and then discuss your map with a colleague.