Gillian Murray, Pilotlight CEO, on the importance of collaboration and why civil society leaders need to see it as a potential force for good.
I’m writing this because I believe that every mission-driven organisation needs to adopt a mindset that puts collaborative working firmly on the agenda.
Collaboration is a broad church, and wondering how best to articulate what it means reminded me of a situation I occasionally faced as a Pilotlight project manager. As such, I was responsible for facilitating teams of senior leaders from business and charity backgrounds, all with lots of skills and experience, and differing points of view. My favourite tactic for dispelling tension in the room or sharpening the focus was to say ‘of course, we’re all here for the benefit of the people charity X was set up to help’. That reminder of our shared goal was really effective. So, I use working towards shared goals as a way to think and talk about collaboration.
My proposition is that social sector organisations, in pursuit of their mission, and to the benefit of their service-users, should join forces and become stronger together: more efficient, impactful, and reaching more people. I think this statement is both powerful and obvious, and hopefully not too controversial. Moving from proposition to practical application though is another matter. Perhaps working together towards shared goals is a starting point.
Back in 2017, we titled our annual conference: ‘Creating Value Together: from partnerships to mergers’. We wanted to explore a spectrum of collaboration, from light-touch ways of engagement between organisations to full-blown mergers. We also wanted to move the conversation in a more positive direction, looking at the opportunities offered by collaborating, aware that it’s often a forced choice driven by a funding gap or a commissioning process.
It was a tricky subject to navigate. To give you an idea, in our pre-conference survey 57% of respondents agreed that there are too many charities in the UK, while 75% agreed that competition is good for charities. My takeaway was that mission-led organisations absolutely need to have collaboration on the agenda and to have a positive pro-active approach to seeking opportunities.
Committing to collaboration
My own approach has been two-fold. One is making our position clear: we want to invest time and thinking in mission-led collaboration. We are actively engaging with anyone we can work with in any shape or form, be that in partnership, strategic alliance, or even merger, which enables us to do more better (A lot of this is opportunistic and basically means having more conversations with more people). The other strand is that we are getting some concrete examples off the ground (from a starting point of 2017 – it can take time!)
We have two examples of new initiatives so far this year. The first is a dream scenario, a funded opportunity to work with two other organisations with similar aims. We will work closely together to test the proposition that we can be more effective and impactful by collaborating.
The second is working in partnership on a pilot project to support 15 organisations in London who are working or planning to work in consortia. This came about through opportunistic introductions, meeting like-minded people and aiming, together, to meet a need and share learning as widely as possible.
Make it a priority
The latest ACEVO pay and equalities survey confirms what we all know: social sector CEOs work an average of 10 additional hours a week. So, either we are a very unproductive and poorly organised lot, or there simply aren’t enough hours in an average working day to keep on top of the workload. How are we meant to prioritise something that doesn’t necessarily give a quick or obvious return on investment? But surely, to better meet our mission is possibly the crucial part of our role as leaders. So whatever, your starting point or current circumstances, thinking creatively and positively about reaching out to those who may share even some of your goals is really part of the job.