Christopher Owen says it’s time to take an honest look at partnerships.

3 minute read

What does the word “partnership” mean to you? I believe it’s about rallying around a joint mission or common goal – something that genuinely motivates different parties to work together.

But let’s be honest. In the social sector, the word has lost some of its sheen.

“Increasingly, ‘partnerships’ are often cobbled together quickly – and without much thought – in a bid to secure funding.”

Now, this may feel like an unfortunate necessity in today’s funding environment. But the problem is that these kinds of alliances usually fail to walk the talk – and this harms the organisations involved and the work they deliver.

Putting differences aside

So how do you build a good partnership? It’s not easy. After all, in times of austerity and increasing competition for grant funding, voluntary sector organisations are working overtime to find ways to differentiate themselves – and exaggerate these differences to claim their slice of the shrinking funding pie. So any partnership means bringing together organisations that have put a lot of effort into sounding different to everyone else.

One initiative that’s transcended these differences is The Drive Partnership, which consists of three very different partners:

  • SafeLives, a national charity focused on helping the survivors of domestic abuse;
  • Respect, a charity focused on addressing domestic abuse by targeting perpetrators; and
  • Social Finance, a not-for-profit focused on achieving sustainable change at scale

Despite these differing focuses, this partnership achieved its initial ambition of scaling delivery of a new service to seven new areas over three years, with more to come.

And perhaps more significantly, these three distinct organisations created a single vision around what needs to be done more broadly to tackle domestic abuse at source by working with the perpetrator.
Though the partnership has faced many external challenges, the personal relationships established between the partners have enabled them to tackle these openly and as a unified front.

The key to strong partnerships

So how can organisations transcend their deeply embedded differences?
There is no doubt that rallying behind a common mission or goal is still crucial. But the Drive partners say the key element in any successful partnership is trust.

“Rallying behind a common mission or goal is still crucial. But the key element in any successful partnership is trust.”

This can be harder than it sounds. Building trust is something that takes time – and a significant investment of resources from all parties.
With The Drive Partnership, trust didn’t happen overnight. It took monthly meetings over many years, with senior leadership figures from each of these large organisations, to get to a point where the partners genuinely trusted one another.

Even then, this level of trust is fragile, susceptible to changes in leadership, funding, and the broader sector in which the partners operate. So it’s also important to maintain these relationships.

The risk and rewards

“How do you start building trust between organisations? One of the key ingredients is vulnerability.”

To create any strong partnership, the organisations involved need to pool their complementary skill sets. But this process can feel threatening – especially in the early stages. After all, organisations operating in similar spaces can feel exposed when they share their knowledge and expertise. For example, they may need assurance that their partners won’t use this for their own ends, such as staking a bigger claim for their organisation in the sector.

It can feel risky, but this openness is needed for the partnership to reach its full potential. If everyone is prepared to invest the time, take risks and show some vulnerability, the partnership will be able to draw on a much broader base of skills and experience.

And this will bring the most valuable reward of all – a partnership that really lives up to the name.

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