Creating more equitable collaborations as we rebuild from Covid-19

Katie Boswell

Covid-19 has shone a light on existing inequalities across society, from structural racism to unequal distribution of resources across the country. These inequalities also play out in collaborations in the social sector. Smaller charities, those outside London, and those working with and for people of colour often do not share equal power or resources.

On 10th June, NPC convened a group of people with experience of creating more equitable collaborations. We wanted to hear their experiences of what works to foster more equitable collaboration, how funders can support, and what is needed to spread these approaches throughout the sector.

Acknowledging power dynamics and shifting mindsets

Acknowledging power dynamics in the room is a vital first step to creating more equitable collaborations – we even started the roundtable by surfacing the power dynamics in our own conversation. Even if charities talk about being equal partners, collaborations are often not equal in practice. Larger charities have more resources and have the power to walk away from collaborations that don’t work out.

Many of the ways of overcoming these unequal power dynamics involve a shift in mindset. One person involved in a collaboration between several charities spoke of practicing “generous leadership”. For example, “start from what you bring to the table—not what you want to take away” and “be clear what power you are willing to give up”.

Smaller organisations can also join together to realise their “collective power”. For example, equalities organisations in Greater Manchester forged new partnerships to meet the diverse needs of older people in response to Covid-19.

Building genuinely collaborative structures and processes

This mindset needs to translate into collaborative structures and processes, for example when setting a shared purpose and strategy. As one participant reflected, it’s important to “create a shared sense of purpose of what you are trying to do, rather than having a purpose thrust down your throat from a funder or a bigger organisation.”

Equity can be built into partnership agreements, governance structures, communications, and allocation of resources. Seemingly small tweaks to processes can have an outsized impact: Zoom made it easier to connect with others locally and beyond, making many collaborations more inclusive and accessible to different groups.

Fair payment—that recognises the time and expertise of partners—is one of the most important things to make collaborations equitable. For example, the London Community Response Fund funded four equity and inclusion partners to increase the reach of its programmes and strengthen its approach. Meanwhile, CounterCommunity in North Staffordshire is rethinking the way people’s time is valued by measuring the contributions made by volunteers.

Sustaining equitable collaborations

Covid-19 showed how organisations can come together in a crisis and many of the collaborations forged during this period were more equitable. Charities, funders, government bodies and businesses shared power and resources in new ways, from the distribution of emergency funds to more open information-sharing meetings.

But as we come out of the emergency phase, organisations are often reverting to previous behaviours. One participant described how: “The crisis has averted a little bit… the daily partnership meetings are down to monthly… some solid relationships have been built, but the barriers are slowly rising again.”

People now need time and headspace to build sustainable collaborations for the longer term. Experienced collaborators at our roundtable pointed out that a proper alliance means lots of conversations, relationship building and bringing people together around common issues. Equitable collaboration takes time and there are no short cuts.

Rethinking funding systems

Funding is crucial to creating and sustaining more equitable collaborations. Existing funding practices can undermine collaboration as they tend to promote competition between organisations for a limited pot of money. Participants had also experienced “pressure from funders to see results in two years”, which does not give the time to develop trust and relationships.

One funder in the room pointed out that funders wanting to support equitable collaboration “need to give organisations flexibility and unrestricted funding to develop those partnerships.” Funders can also look to promote collaboration through the way that they fund: for example, A Better Way network is exploring how we can rewire funding systems to promote collaboration instead of competition.

Looking beyond funding, one participant highlighted that “the role of trusts and foundations isn’t always just to give money; it is to help facilitate and be a catalyst for collaboration.” Another spoke of using their power to speak up and to amplify the voices of others in meeting with public sector partners: “I could say things that other voluntary sector organisations couldn’t say because they didn’t have the power to say it… we weren’t being funded by anyone.”

Sharing learning

It was clear from our roundtable that we can learn a lot from those who are creating more equitable collaborations across the sector. We believe that spreading these approaches across the sector can unlock the potential of collaborations to become more than the sum of their parts—really making the most of all partners’ expertise, insights and capacity.

NPC is looking to work with others on research into what works in creating and sustaining equitable collaborations. This could take the form of collating and sharing practical tools across the sector, or it could be more in-depth research with a small number of collaborations. We would love to hear from you if you have ideas or would like to explore this further with us. Please get in touch with katie.boswell@thinknpc.org  

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Mike Riddell

Hi Katie

This piece of work is critical to those of us who work on the ground in places like Stoke and North Staffordshire. We thank you for taking the time to listen to us. We’re also working with Local Trust and The National Lottery, both of whom have been very supportive of our work, without imposing too much control on how we go about our business. So there really is something valuable beginning to emerge – a shared future narrative around giving, not taking.

Let’s be honest – it’s what we do. We give. Many folks don’t choose to volunteer their time given their options, which typically don’t include paid employment. So choosing to volunteer their time to a community group, good cause or local charity is something that should be valued, recognised and rewarded. And that’s where your collaboration ought to consider going next – to the private sector, which in our case looks like Port Vale and Stoke City FC – community-focused organisations with a business to run, and a community to serve.

But there’s something in this talk about “Power” that makes me think we’re using the wrong word. According to people like James P Carse:

  • Power is always measured in units of comparison – it’s a term of “competition”: how much resistance can I overcome in relation to others?
  • Power is bestowed by an audience
  • Power is never equivalent until two or more elements are in opposition – whichever element can move the other, is the more powerful

I would argue that in order to effectively collaborate, we can together, make a stand against power and the powerful, simply by recognising that “power” is concerned with what has already happened, whereas “strength” is concerned with what has yet to happen.

Anyone can be strong – this is the point. We are strong, and becoming stronger, yet we do not attempt to become powerful.

This is the narrative of giving. Not taking.

Mike Riddell

Love it Katie. I’m sold! x