1 Continuing to collaborate

Now listen to the final instalment from Ellen’s story.

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It's six months now since the Regional Parenting Partnership kicked off and yet again I've spent the morning discussing which organisation delivers which pairing programme in which locality. The meeting ended with a lengthy discussion about when to meet next and where and who will chair and what the agenda should be. Thank goodness there was time for a quick lunch with Sally, the manager of the parenting project in the next county, which was good and we quickly agreed to share staff training so that we can both offer the new programmes in next year's contracts.
We also agreed to meet for coffee every month to explore how we continue to work together. It is not just about delivering the programmes, but also influencing the regional partnership, which looks like it is here to stay for all its seemingly endless bureaucracy. A quick sandwich, and I'm back on the motorway heading for the office.
The administrator waylays me on my way in with a list of questions, so it's actually another hour before I sit at my desk. I must finish the monthly report for tomorrow's trustee meeting, and I'm struggling to concentrate with the photocopier alongside me humming its way through hundreds of copies of the annual report. I'm also struggling because I know the trustees are anxious about the amount of time I spend on the regional partnership and want me to spend more time back at base with the Family Time team.
How can I convince them? Should I even tell them that I've been asked to be chair of the council's Family Support Forum next year? It's a great opportunity to promote Family time, but it's yet more time spent collaborating with other organisations rather than managing the staff team. And, of course, Family Time is a key member of the Locality Interagency Planning Group, so I need to keep time for that too. I need to think carefully about how I say all of this to the trustees, actually.
When I reflect on how collaboration with other organisations has impacted Family Time's work, it has been a roller coaster. In just four years, Family Time has gone from an independent, locally-funded and supported project to an organisation which is heavily influenced by government policy and dependent on government funding. I tried to influence the regional partnership, but it's dominated by the big players.
All I can do is try to make sure I get to know everyone. Those contacts might be useful in the future, and at least I now realise that the challenges I face are similar to other people, a problem shared and all that. It does feel vulnerable, though, and all so dependent on me.
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Like Ellen, many individuals leading voluntary organisations spend a large percentage of their time collaborating with other organisations, but the form and structure of this collaboration changes over time. Informal cooperation becomes a formal agreement; a locality partnership forms, struggles and dissolves in response to policy changes; a leaders’ forum is strong for a while but dissipates when key individuals move on. Individuals engage in multiple forums, working groups, and joint projects – each with different members, processes, and accountability structures, all of which are continually changing. The organisation adapts to these different forms of collaboration, responding to the shifting priorities of its partners.

Almost in spite of these changes, organisations within and beyond the sector do develop collaborative partnerships that endure. Think, for example, of the changing but enduring relationship between a residents’ association and a town council. Initially, the residents’ association forms to represent to the council the need for more green spaces in the locality. They develop a formal partnership to apply for Lottery funding to restore a derelict site in the town. The Lottery project lasts six months, but residents and councillors identify further land for development of allotments. The land is owned by the council which offers to lease the land to the residents’ association, forming a binding contract between them. In the meantime, the partnership between the council and the residents’ association becomes more widely known and both are invited to join the county forum for the development and maintenance of green spaces. In forum meetings, it is clear that the association and the council have quite different views on the ownership of green spaces. The residents’ association partners with other residents’ associations to campaign for council held land to be transferred to local communities, and so the collaborative fabric is woven across the locality.

This is the complex context for collaboration that you will explore this week, mapping out what this complexity means for your organisation and its leadership. As with last week’s study, you will undertake a mini-research project this week through which you will reflect on how collaboration is sustained over the longer-term, by mapping collaboration between your organisation and a key partner over an extended period of time, and through changing forms and structures. You will also reflect on what this longer-term focus might mean for your own leadership practice.

2 Nurturing over the longer-term