by Becky Elton – Group Assistant Director, Business Development

I have been thinking about partnerships a lot lately. Partnership working has always been a big thing for the VCS, though much of it, until recently, has been about talking to each other, referring clients to and fro, doing the odd bit of joint influencing or lobbying. There is value in all of those things, but it only gets us to a certain point in actually making things different for the people we are here to support.

Several things have happened over the past few years that have changed the way partnerships have had to operate in our bit of the sector.

Public sector cuts have forced local authority commissioners to cut budgets and reduce the number of organisations it deals with. In some areas this has meant commissioners reviewing and reshaping services (as well as making cuts). Partnerships have had to form to deliver services, so where there was once multiple separate contracts to deliver addictions or housing related support services.

“Primes” have entered our vocabulary, the big beasts that we’d never really heard of before were suddenly in our lives, getting huge contracts from central government with the promise of sub-contracts for all. Some big successful organisations shrank rapidly as their main income streams were taken. Brave organisations dipped a toe in the sub-contracting water,  many hung back to see what would happen. It would appear they are here to stay, so relationships have to be built and each VCS organisation has to work out how best to engage in this new sort of partnership, if at all.

Welfare reform, and the associated impact on our clients has meant we need to have a stronger joint voice. Nationally coalitions of large charities and membership organisations have come together to lobby more effectively, and those representative bodies, such as Homeless Link, have needed the engagement of their members to provide specific evidence of how changes are affecting the most vulnerable people in our communities.  This has resulted in changes to the detail, if not the over all direction of welfare reform, which have meant the homelessness sector can at least sustain the income it needs from Housing Benefit to run accommodation services.

So it feels like the how and the why of partnerships is evolving in response to external conditions, although we are not powerless in how things take shape. Recognising and reflecting on the different types of partnership means we can make conscious decisions  about how we engage and on what terms. We can also decide on what sort of partner we are, recognise what sorts of partners other organisations are (which may change depending on context) and decide if we want to enter into a relationship with them.

A non-scientific analysis of the partners types I have observed recently:

  • Transactional – you want something, we want something, lets just do this and get it over with. The lead in time for these relationships is usually short, even if the resulting work is longer term. How the relationship develops once you’ve both got what you want (or not) depends on whether the organisations had some shared values at the start, and it might take a lot of work to build something productive after the short term gain.
  • Megalomaniac – usually a big organisation that feels it has a lot of power and influence. Whilst it recognises that it needs to work with other people, it doesn’t really want to and so tries to set the terms from the start with little discussion with partners. Sometimes this is ok, if the terms work for you and you’re willing to go with the flow, however,  don’t expect them to cut you any slack if things get difficult.
  • Big beasts – those that I mention above. They have a big central government contract, if you can supply the service they need at the right price you’re in. If you can’t, tough.
  • Good guys – larger organisations that recognise that smaller partners have a specialism or expertise that they can’t necessarily deliver, and behave accordingly – sharing their systems and processes, demanding a level of performance but also helping to build capacity of smaller partners.
  • Worthy, willing & wide-eyed – partners who want to work with others because it’s a generally good thing to do, and we should all work together and be friends. Meetings with these partners are lovely and usually have biscuits, and sometimes a buffet, but it takes a really long time to get to a decision, and they are often in danger of missing the boat completely unless someone gives them a shove on to the deck.

There are no doubt many more types to add, and organisations can and do play different roles in different partnerships. Critical to surviving in this new world is knowing what sort of relationship you’re entering into and what role you’re playing. Critical to thriving in this new world is holding tight to your values and keeping the interests of services users central when you’re considering partners and working in partnerships.