Taking out the tokenism: Ensuring equity in collaboration

Katie Boswell

Collaboration can sometimes perpetuate inequality, exclusion, and unhealthy power dynamics. When this happens, organisations can end up perpetuating the unjust systems they are trying to address through the way that they work.  

Collaboration should be equitable, and that includes how we work with other organisations. At NPC Ignites in October 2020, Natalie Creary of Black Thrive revealed how grassroots black and ethnic minority groups are sometimes exploited by charity partners that “want to have a bit of melanin” in their funding bids. If the collaborative funding bid is successful, these groups may find they have little decision-making power in the partnership and receive few resources.  

Similarly, small charities can be disadvantaged by the way that collaboration works in the sector. A recent report by NCVO, ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, Rebalancing the Relationship, found that smaller subcontracted organisations in partnership bids report poor treatment and a lack of power and voice, with lead partners allocating funding unfairly. This is a long-standing problem. One charity that NPC interviewed for our 2017 Beyond Bars research was named in 9 of 11 winning Transforming Rehabilitation bids but has never been approached to deliver a day’s work. 

Meanwhile, charities of all sizes can feel like the junior partner when collaborating with funders. A lack of funder accountability and feedback mechanisms means that grantees and communities have no way to let funders know how they would like things to be different. Few charities are willing to speak out publicly, as they are dependent on funding. Put simply, you don’t bite the hand that feeds you. 

Some of these issues relate to how government commissioning incentivises unhealthy collaboration and competition, or to wider structural inequalities in our society. But there are also things that charities and funders can do to address the issues themselves. 

Creating partnerships of equal participation and power

Equitable collaboration creates partnerships between organisations built on equal participation and power.  

An important first step is to acknowledge existing power imbalances. For example, the Voluntary and Community Sector Emergencies Partnership arose from a meeting in which national and local charities discussed the shortcomings of the response to the Grenfell fire. Local charities rooted in the Grenfell community spoke about the failures to connect the national response to their understanding of local need.  

Resources like the Power Cube can help us to analyse how power operates in collaborationsPower can work in hidden ways such as through rules and procedures, the way that issues are framed, and the discrediting of people who speak out against the status quo.  

The next step is to actively address these imbalances by agreeing structures and ways of working that rebalance power as far as possible. For the VCS Emergencies Partnership, this has meant engaging in an open dialogue to share insights into the needs of different communities and open new avenues for reaching vulnerable groups. 

Others have gone beyond the idea of ‘open dialogue’, arguing that ‘open’ is not the same as ‘inclusive’. Open spaces can easily replicate and exacerbate existing power dynamics. Click To Tweet For example, people facing language barriers or time constraints can’t participate equally, while people with the loudest voices and highest profile dominate conversations. Open spaces often do nothing to counteract wider inequalities such as systemic racism, sexism, heteronormativity, ableism, and stigma around people living in poverty. 

Raising the ambition

More ambitious approaches aim to actively redress power imbalances in relationships between organisations. Approaches that we’re excited about include: 

  • In a good practice briefing on collaborative working to end violence against women and girls, Imkaan suggested that a more ethical approach to allocating resources within a partnership might be based on a qualitative needs analysis that recognises multiple disadvantage (including how organisations such as specialist BME-led charities may experience that disadvantage). This proactive approach to acknowledging and rebalancing power also includes exploring how time, funding, skills, and access can be shared within a partnership. 
  • The UK Democracy Handbook aims to help people working on democracy to share information and to connect with each other. It is a fully open online space co-created and co-owned by the community. The handbook is set up so that anyone can contribute at any time, meaning that people won’t have a louder voice because of their profile or background or the size of their organisation. Organisers are actively thinking about how to ensure participants are representative of the wider community and how to reach people beyond the ‘usual’ networks through ensuring that the handbook is an accessible and welcoming space. 
  • Rebalancing the Relationship gives recommendations for creating fair and equal partnerships between charities of different sizes. Crucially, this includes ensuring fair payment, processes for resolving issues and balanced decision-making structures. For example, the London VAWG Consortium is governed through a power-sharing model: partners elect lead organisations to coordinate services and operate through an equitable partnership agreement. 
  • Some funders are seeking to rebalance power in their relationships with charities. The Listening Fund supports youth-focused organisations to better listen to young people, as well as reflecting more broadly on where power lies within the sector and whose voices are heard. A recent report by Nusrat Faizullah for The Listening Fund focused on how funders could become more equitable and inclusive in their listening culture. Recommendations included addressing hidden hierarchies or unconscious biases, as well as considering who has gained more by the end of a listening interaction.  

What are you working on?

We are interested to hear from others who are working to create more inclusive collaborations between organisations in the sector. Do you have an example to share or an idea for future work? We’d love to know what you think in response to these questions, comment below with your thoughts, ideas and what else we should be asking…

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