Partnerships really matter

At the start of Access’ journey, we made a key decision regarding how we will effectively deploy our funding and, in doing so, help make charities and social enterprises more financially resilient and self-reliant. We decided to stay relatively ‘lean’ in terms of the size of our organisation and work in close partnership with others. 

Specifically, with:

  • Funders and foundations
  • Sector networks and membership bodies
  • Specialist consultancy and advisory organisations
  • Social investors and intermediaries

This was not just a pragmatic decision but, rather, based on the belief that Access’s impact will be greater through working collaboratively with others. Therefore, a key part of Access making the most of its ten-year lifespan is forming healthy and effective partnerships across a network of organisations that resonate with Access’s purpose and values. Indeed, due to our limited lifespan, much of our legacy as an organisation will depend on our ability to give something useful to other organisations in the network.  In other words, partnerships really matter.

To this end, we have appointed other organisations to design and implement programmes. We have followed the standard process of tenders, proposals, interviews, and – ultimately – selection of a preferred organisation. Negotiation and contracts follow, and when the dust settles, we all get to work. At this point, it is incredibly easy for us to fall into the stereotype of the over-controlling funder – making sure everything happens in exactly the way it would if we were directly running the programme, ensuring our brand is always the primary one, and making sure we are continually recognised as the fount of all wisdom!

In some ways it is understandable that this is the default setting for funders – control can influence quality when there are specific intended outcomes, brand can contribute to legacy, and, occasionally, funders do have good ideas.

However, our thinking on how to best work in partnership with others has been influenced by the emerging concept of ‘network leadership’. You might have seen specific references to this concept in our strategy and in our previous blog, ‘From targets to transparency’. We first came across it in an article in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, which outlined two intriguing case studies – Habitat for Humanity in Egypt and Guide Dogs for the Blind Association. In both of these case studies, the two organisations were significantly better resourced than their peer organisations. However, both realised that they were only going to be able to make a significant impact if they were to intentionally resource and equip other organisations in their field – even those who might be seen as ‘competitors’. Reflecting on these case studies and others like it, the authors identified four characteristics of this type of network leadership:

  • Mission, not organisation. Organisations are established in order to achieve a purpose, yet it is so easy for the organisation to become an end in itself. Network leadership prioritises the mission over the organisation. This enables genuine collaboration, particularly where there is alignment in terms of mission and purpose.
  • Trust, not control. Whilst control might be needed if things go wrong, network leadership is primarily based on trust. Interestingly, in one of the case studies, the organisation spent a significant amount of time and resources in selecting partners – making sure that values were aligned – recognising that this meant much less time ‘managing’ the partnership.
  • Humility, not brand. There is more than a grain of truth in the old saying attributed to Harry Truman, ‘It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit.’ Partnerships are always vulnerable when one of the partners is intent on gaining recognition for any success.
  • Node, not hub. Whilst a funder plays a specific role in a network, this does not mean that the funder should be at the centre of everything that happens. Money is an important contribution, but so are others.

This is how we want to be as a funder. We recognise that we won’t always get it right. Our intention is to keep learning, so we can improve the quality of our partnerships, and in doing so, hopefully, the whole sector will benefit.