I have been looking at entering The Communication Trust into the latest spate of third sector competitions under the ‘partnership’ award categories. The Communication Trust is a coalition organisation – a group of not-for-profit organisations that have decided to collaborate in pursuit of a common cause – and partnership runs through everything that we do.
When talking to friends about my job those outside the sector I take it for granted that such joint working is the norm - after all charities, (from the Latin Caritas meaning love), are all sweetness do-gooding altruistic bodies. However, friends who have spent their life working in charities tend to suck through their teeth and ask how I cope with the other “c” word – competition.
That charities compete is the non spoken truth of the voluntary sector. Like corporates we compete for money, for PR, for profile and even for clients. Unlike much of the private sector many charities are also driven by passion for their cause, their users, and their beliefs – a passion that can fuel aggressive business strategies epitomised in the Chair of a major national charity recently declaring their intent to wipe the competition off the playing field.
Competition is not per se bad. It can spur organisations on to achieve more for their users. But all charities should, from time to time, consider whether they may achieve more by making their competitors their partners (or, and I have rarely met a charity that has admitted this, consider whether one of their competitiors may be better placed then they to pursue their cause).
Two years ago members of The Communication Trust took such a moment for reflection and decided that collaboration was an essential next step in pursuit of their individual missions. While making the decision was the first step the road to a functional coalition is pathed with challenges. Several Trust members represent impairment specific missions; autism, stammering, specific language difficulties, learning difficulties, hearing impairment; others have an interest social exclusion and poverty; still others have a mission to promote particular approaches or interventions and some come with a wider interest in education and employment. Some are small volunteer run bodies – some are £100 million corporations. These differences in size, mission, style and philosophies compound the challenges faced by competing organisations attempting to collaborate in a market place where funding is ever tighter.
And yet the Trust has succeeded. There are over 30 members of the coalition and the numbers are growing. How has this happened?
In truth taking the first step to decide to collaborate was key. Many Trust members had not had good working relationships and it took courage from these CEOs to reach out – this bold leadership from the CEOs of I CAN, Afasic and other early members of the Trust set a positive model.
The next step was agreeing a common enemy. As many of 10% of children have significant speech, language and communication needs, linked to range of different impairments; in some parts of the country 40-50% of children are entering schools with poor language skills, often linked to social disadvantage; still others do not have the skills for employment and further education. Tackling this time bomb became a common purpose for Trust members and that action was needed fast provided the imperative for shared action.
However even with this common purpose joint working is in practice difficult. Sometimes very difficult. With early support from VCS Engage, the Trust explored models of working and based on early experience I created a guide to good practice in coalition which appears alongside some really useful advice on coalition working that can be found at http://www.vcsengage.org.uk/publications.aspx. Two years on much of this advice remains; starting with something small (we started with developing a leaflet with a shared definition of the problem) be honest, have a strong leader and be informed by evidence and users. I would now add the need to balance sensible process with pragmatic practice – the voluntary sector temptation is to develop complex rules and flow charts for joint working and, while some process is important, the tendency to sit in a room and engage in what a mentor once branded ‘semantical joggerpokery’ about whether a rule should read ‘could’ or ‘will’, must be tempered by some real work.
It is on this last point I am most proud of what the Trust has achieved. We have sensible rules and processes (helped in a large point by adopting a PRINCE 2 approach with an excellent project manager), we work together well (but are never complacent - joint working is a dynamic process), but most of all we have increased the range and quality of services available to children and young people who find communication difficult. As well as our own work we have, through our joint working, pushed and supported the government to take forward a £50 million action plan that will ensure better communication for many children in the years to come. Competition remains between members and between causes but this is tempered by another driver – ambition. We have achieved much with and for children but we are ambitious to achieve so much more and together we will.