In 2018 NCVO, ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales launched a project to address competition and collaboration between voluntary organisations and social enterprises of different sizes around the delivery of services of all kinds to the public. The project has focused on organisations working within the context of the competitive commissioning environment and aims to encourage more collaborative ways of working. The findings and considerations for practice within this report are based on significant engagement with organisations across the voluntary sector.
A variety of thriving charities working together is vital to deliver high quality support, tackle complex and systemic social issues and empower communities and put them at the heart of decision-making. The pandemic has also demonstrated the importance of collaboration, especially with local organisations, to support communities.
While negative experiences have corroded trust between organisations, this report demonstrates that there are bright sparks of collaboration between charities delivering public services. Generous leaders are marking a new and different path, demonstrating that collaboration is possible and worthwhile even within the current competitive environment.
It is vital for all organisations, especially those with more power, to consider how their impact on the wider voluntary sector affects the people they serve. This is not just a matter of avoiding harming other organisations. It is crucial we actively create an environment that ensures a range of good organisations can serve the communities they work with.
Commissioning and procurement practice
While some charities do report supportive practices from some commissioners, most organisations express frustration. Charities of all types and sizes report a range of challenges, including:
- poor service design
- lack of funding
- increasingly large generic contracts
- passing on risk to providers
- tight deadlines.
Negative experiences of competition and collaboration
Most organisations we spoke to in this research have had mixed experiences of competing and collaborating, with some reporting negative experiences. These experiences can influence how charities view each other over time, and the level of trust between them. Negative experiences are not isolated - they have a ripple effect.
Commissioning and procurement partnerships: Subcontracted organisations report poor treatment, lead providers allocating funding unfairly, and a lack of power and voice in the processes.
- Having work appropriated or undermined by other charities, for example, being included in a bid but later not receiving work or funding.
- Charities bidding for contracts outside of their mission, causing some organisations to lose their core work. User-led organisations in particular experienced challenges with non-user led organisations bidding for their core work.
- Charities winning contracts they then struggle to deliver, due to lack of local knowledge or presence, submitting unrealistically low bids, or lack of processes and policies. This is a particular problem where there had been an existing local providing delivering well.
- Most charities engaged in this project have indicated an openness to working in collaboration, but many describe hostility or reluctance from other charities.
Most charities believe these negative behaviours are driven by the competitive commissioning environment, whereas others view these behaviours to be driven by a focus on organisational gain over impact. However, some recognise they have a responsibility and opportunity to behave differently. Some charities recognise that their own practices and approach as a charity may have caused some of these negative experiences and describe efforts to now increase the frequency and quality of collaboration as well as compete in a responsible way.
Collaborative practices and motivations
While some charities have negative experiences of working with each other, there are also examples of very successful collaboration. Even within the constraints of commissioning and procurement practice, organisations have found ways to work with one another. Examples include:
- Bidding for and delivering contracts in partnership, including larger charities supporting smaller organisations to meet the requirements of commissioners and offering flexibility to partners during delivery
- Building the capacity of smaller organisations either during contract delivery, or outside of a contract
- Influencing commissioners to support and reduce barriers for smaller organisations
- Competing in a responsible way, including not underbidding for contracts, bidding according to expertise and mission, and not bidding if the current provider is delivering well
- Buying in the support of smaller organisations outside of contract delivery
- Facilitating the flow of money to other charities
- Sharing infrastructure and resources
Charities describe a range of approaches to improve the quality and success of partnership working including:
- Sharing power and knowledge, ensuring all partners are included in decision making
- Aligning values when selecting partners, and clarifying shared expectations and ways of working.
- Effective management, including fair funding arrangements, legal agreements, and regular communication.
- Offering flexibility to partners.
- Developing partnerships early and investing time in development.
- Building positive personal relationships across organisations based on trust.
Organisations express a range of motivations to work with one another, including working with others who have a similar mission and values to them. Others collaborate for necessity, if they cannot deliver a service alone; delivering value for money is another driver, with examples including avoiding duplication and the opportunity to share back office functions. Some organisations felt that capacity building of smaller organisations was a responsibility and a key motivator, whereas for others it was an unintended positive consequence.
Organisational culture and leadership
Collaborative organisations often have an organisational culture that supports collaboration and partnership working. The most collaborative organisations:
- Support smaller organisations as part of their values and behaviours, and enable staff to serve communities rather than their organisation.
- Recognise that growth in size and income doesn’t always result in sustainability or impact.
- Embed partnership and support for other organisations into their decision making about what to bid for.
- Ensure their structures and job roles support collaboration.
Leaders, including senior management and trustees, also have a clear role to play to shape this collaborative culture. There are several functions leaders need to fulfil to shape this culture:
- Setting direction
- Devolving responsibility
- Modelling collaborative behaviour
- Ensuring boards create the conditions for collaboration
Putting collaboration into practice
There are brilliant examples of collaboration across the sector, but it is clear that negative experiences of competition and poor partnership have damaged trust between organisations. Drawing on the findings of this report, we have highlighted the behaviours of collaborative organisations across five different areas (see below the table).
- Compete in an ethical and responsible way
- Demonstrate openness to collaborating with various organisation
- Explore different ways to support other charities
- Develop fair and equal partnerships
- Nurture a collaborative organisational culture and leadership behaviours
We suggest five key questions every leader and individual should consider to improve how their organisation works with others:
- Power. What advantages does my organisation have compared to others, and how can we level the playing field? How can we support organisations led by marginalised groups and communities?
- Empathy. What are the challenges other organisations of different types and sizes face? What do other organisations do better than us? What are the challenges and values we have in common?
- Honesty. How do other organisations, and people who work for them, experience working with us? How can we make them feel comfortable to have an honest conversation with us?
- Communication. Do others know we want to work in partnership and how we approach partnership working?
- Impact. How are the people we serve supported by other organisations? How can we work with other organisations to centre the people we serve and coproduce services? How can we prioritise impact above organisational interest
More information on this work can be found by viewing our webinar on Rebalancing the relationship: Successful collaboration with other charities.
There are different definitions of commissioning. Broadly commissioning is a cycle of activity comprising of assessing need, planning and then procuring services, and monitoring and reviewing those services. Procurement is the process of sourcing and selecting goods or services from other organisations, often through a competitive process.
A subcontractor or subcontracted organisation is contracted by another to deliver part of a contract.
A user-led organisation (ULO) is an organisation that is run and controlled by people who use support services such as disabled people or people who use mental health services.
Coproduction is where professionals and people who use services work in equal partnership to design and deliver services.