A hard hitting assessment on how and where social ventures fail to work in partnership and collaboration effectively.
Partnership and collaboration are popular ideas in the world of social enterprise. Everyone wants organisations to work together to do things better and, so the theory goes, social organisations should be keener to work together and better at it.
Unfortunately, as highlighted in The Guardian’s Social Enterprise Network’s most recent Secret Social Entrepreneur column , there’s often a gap between rhetoric and reality: “Social enterprises do not collaborate well” he or she opined before adding: “Collaboration is more effective than ‘capacity building’ and ‘better infrastructure support’, we’ve spent hundreds of millions of pounds on that but not changed behaviours and the big breakthroughs remain to be found.”
Mr/Ms Secret doesn’t actually offer any specific evidence as to whether social entrepreneurs are actually better or worse at collaboration than anyone else but he/she runs through the usual policy based arguments for making partnership work – it’s about openness, enthusiasm and trust apparently.
It’s not. Really, it’s not. That’s the kind of partnership and collaboration that you learn about in pointless workshops funded by the EU to develop your organisation’s capacity to form consortia. I’ve sat through these workshops and can testify to their pointlessness.
Commercial partnerships are really not like friendships or romantic relationships. They’re a mechanism for getting something done. If you’re running a conventional business they’re a way to work with another business (or businesses) to make some money. If you’re running a social venture they’re a way to work with another organisation (or organisations) to make some money whilst doing something socially useful.
They work or don’t work based on all partners having something useful to contribute – and being properly rewarded for that contribution. It’s quite possible to work in partnership with people you don’t trust and don’t like provided both parties have a clear interest in working together to achieve the same outcome. Richard Branson doesn’t have like to like or trust Rupert Murdoch to do a deal to offer Sky Sports channels as part of Virgin’s TV package.
Clearly this doesn’t mean that social ventures should actively seek out closed-minded, unenthusiastic liars for potential collaboration, but there’s a tendency for social ventures to pursue partnerships that make emotional sense but don’t make commercial or practical sense.
As a small social venture the reasons you might collaborate (fruitfully) with other organisations include:
a) there’s something you want to do that you’re more likely to be able to get money to do, if you’re operating under a larger organisation’s banner;
b) there’s something a larger organisation wants to do which they need your organisation’s knowledge and/or expertise to do;
c) there’s something that you want to do which requires the knowledge/expertise of several different small organisations;
d) there’s something that a group of smaller organisations want to do which they need your organisation’s knowledge and/or expertise to do.
There are lots of possible variations on these basic situations but your starting point should always be determined by the combination of your ability to do something, other people’s need for you to do that thing, and a combined need or desire to make something happen.
It’s a point that almost seems too obvious to make but huge amounts of time and energy are wasted by social ventures enthusiastically exploring potential collaborations without considering it. Really liking someone and supporting what they’re doing is a good reason to retweet them but it’s not, in itself, a good enough reason to create a joint project.
Some partnerships make sense for customers but not for providers. For example, from the point of view of local authority, it makes sense for three local organisations that support people with mental health difficulties to form a consortium to bid for a contract or grant.
It might make sense from the organisations’ point of view as well if they specialise in providing support in distinctly different ways or to distinctly different groups of people. If, on the other, hand they provide similar services in a slightly different way, they would be better off either merging entirely or competing with each other. Artificial, illogical partnerships promoted by public sector commissioners or grant funders generally end badly for both organisations and people who use their services.
If social ventures are worse at collaborating than other businesses, it may be partly because they attempt to collaborate for the wrong reasons. It may also be partly because they’ve failed to work out (or communicate) what it actually is that they do in terms of specific products or services.
Partnerships can be great but there’s no point in forming them just for the sake of it.