Collaboration...it really is all about the people

Just over two years ago, a handful of people  from the private, public and voluntary sectors formed the North East Collaboration Working Group, led by Lyn Cole, to start a regionwide conversation about collaboration. In this guest blog, find out Lyn's top three lessons drawn from leading such an extraordinary team, and why she found it such a joy.

Collaboration for social good. The context

In this project, we set out to achieve four things:

  1. To produce inspiring case studies of current examples of collaboration in our region (published November 2018)
  2. To run action learning sets to enable leaders to learn together (2018 to 2019)
  3. To organise a successful North East Collaboration Conference attended by more than 160 people in November 2018, during which we achieved our objective to...
  4. ...launch the Collaboration Action Fund to create space for potential partnerships to collaborate before starting their respective projects.

Actually, we set out to do five things – the fifth was to create a Collaboration Charter for organisations to use to signal their openness to working with others. We didn’t achieve that due to lack of funding, but four out of five ain’t bad!

Since the conference I’m delighted that eight partnerships have set the right foundations for really exciting projects. And this month the group came together again for a learning and celebration event to applaud their remarkable achievements, over cake, of course. Here's more information about each of the eight partnerships:

1) The Angelou Centre. The project partners are: Curious Monkey, Footsteps Nursery, Sangini, Studio 66, Harambee Pasadia and VAMOS!

There is little structural help to measure social impact and the quality of evaluations for unfunded and grassroots organisations, freelancers, participants and others engaged in community-based work with a focus on social justice. The project will provide practical resources, expertise and access to the knowledge needed to improve the measurement of social impact and evaluations that will strengthen the quality of the work, and in turn funding opportunities. The project would also like to use this information as an evidence base to improve funders’ understanding of the true impact of small and medium sized community organisations.

This project is proposing an online platform that would give small and medium sized organisations access to resources and expertise in relation to social impact measurement and evaluation.  This would take the form of a ‘toolkit’ or resources collated and developed by respected and established organisations currently working within the community sector, building on their learning and evaluation systems and the best ways to evidence social impact.

2) Changing Lives and the Angelou Centre

It's a fact that black and minoritised people are underrepresented within drug and alcohol treatment services. While the reasons for this are multi-faceted, it must be accepted that current mainstream services are largely inaccessible for black and minoritised people due to cultural factors, including higher levels of stigma and shame within some communities. Mainstream services often lack the cultural competence and knowledge to meet the needs of communities that face multiple barriers, particularly women and girls and people without recourse to public funds. 

The Angelou Centre and Changing Lives committed to better understand the needs in relation to substance use, and the barriers to accessing support for women engaged with The Angelou Centre, through undertaking consultation and collaboration sessions with a number of women and analysing the results to identify thematic barriers.

3) Meadow Well Connected. The project partners are: Open Lab, North Tyneside Council, Gibside Community Farm, Quiet Corner Plants and Therapeutic Gardening CIV, Tyne Fresh Local Businesses (North Shields Quality Butchers, FAB Bakery, North East Organic Growers, and YMCA Urban Mushrooms).

Meadow Well Connected is a community hub interested in exploring the benefit of healthy food for the local community through creating a sustainable model for growing and distributing locally-produced, high quality food, and using food as a vehicle for engagement to explore and build upon capacity in Meadow Well with the goal of creating sustainable healthy communities. Through a food network pilot (Tyne Fresh), the project has begun to explore what this could look like. To ensure the long term viability of Tyne Fresh, benefit would be gained from a collaboration with the knowledge and expertise to build strong community support and participation.

4) Oasis Community Housing. The project partners are: Youth Focus: North East, North East Chamber of Commerce, VONNE, Muckle LLP, North East Procurement Organisation and GotPurpose.

The reduced role and influence of the public sector and increasing pressures on the voluntary sector to fill the gaps means the role of business in our region is increasingly important. Oasis Community Housing and Youth Focus: North East have been working together to develop a range of ideas which can be used to stimulate discussion and debate between the corporate, public and voluntary and community sectors. The centre of the discussions will be how we create mutually beneficial relationships between businesses and the voluntary sector that go beyond philanthropy and CSR.

A working group is now in place, and a project plan has been developed which, through its delivery, will see an increased understanding of what shared value is across the voluntary and community and private sectors, and put a spotlight on good practice.

5) Recovery Connections. The project partner is The Road to Recovery.

Drug related deaths are at an all time high. Statistically, more people are dying from this than road traffic accidents in the North East. Alcohol harm and early death due to alcohol are also at record levels. Our region has the highest mortality rate from addiction in the country.

Stigma associated with addiction and people who use alcohol and other drugs in a problematic way is not merely unjust; it promotes denial, increases physical harm and is potentially deadly. For those in recovery, it creates a barrier to disclosure, negatively impacts mental wellbeing and prolongs the pain for themselves and their families. The shame felt by those affected in our communities is crippling and is augmented by the stigma borne of ignorance of the true nature of the disease of addiction. Our vision is to reduce the stigma of addiction.

6) VODA. The project partners are: North Tyneside Council, North Tyneside Business Forum, YMCA North Tyneside, Age UK North Tyneside, CAB North Tyneside, Helix Arts, Northumbria Police, and North Tyneside CCG.

It is proposed that increased and improved collaboration between all sectors will identify opportunities and increase the possibility for reshaping North Shields town centre. Since the conference, the conversation between partners has continued and and relevant data is being collated to be taken into account, including demographics, vacancy rates for retail units,and the profile of town centre use, including its public spaces. The Collaboration Action Fund has enabled a partnership of organisations to discuss and explore a range of options that could be developed into a plan for North Shields, drawing on expertise from a range of partners, including the third sector, business sector, local authority and health.

7) Your Voice Counts. The project partners are: Gateshead Council, Volunteer Scotland/Stirling Festival of Volunteering, Citizens Advice Gateshead, Friends Action North East and National Energy Action.

The partners recognise that too often services are designed and delivered from the perspective of the service provider rather than the people who need support. Service providers describe certain communities as “hard to reach" so the aim of this collaboration is to flip this script on its head because hard to reach communities are easy to ignore. Partners want to start letting these communities steer the direction of their work, with a collaboration that creates a safe and attractive temporary ‘home base' for community gatherings and for conversations about building community spirit and support.

8) Youth Focus: North East. The project partner is EY Foundation.

The economic landscape in the North East is evolving, with higher paid professional roles emerging in innovative growth sectors. However, youth employment has been a perennial issue in the North East, which often features well below national average levels and near the bottom of regional statistical tables. The evidence suggests there is an urgent need to develop a framework that enables young people aged 16+ and employers to better connect – and to do so in a more structured and systemic way.

The partnership feels more can be done to address the issues on both sides of this labour market problem, enabling local employers to access this pool of untapped potential and talent. The project aims to bring together 10 or more large and medium sized employers with significant operations in the North East to share their insight, challenges and opportunities regarding future talent and employment pathways, specifically for young people. Consultations will also take place with more than 50 local young people to share their views from a lived experience perspective. It is hoped this data will support the development of a pilot framework of engagement to launch in 2020.

So, what lessons have I personally learned leading the partnership?

First, it really is all about the people and what happens between them. Our group chose to work together, giving up their time to encourage the North East to break down the barriers across the different sectors. Most of the members engaged with this work as individuals without the ‘lifting power’ and infrastructure of organisations. A true labour of love or bloody-mindedness, however you choose to look at it!

The conference itself provided a great opportunity for people to connect. From the minute the doors opened at 8.30am, even before our brilliant speakers opened their mouths, people were already chatting and swapping business cards. Our job was practically done, even before the conference started!

The eight Collaboration Action Fund partnerships also showcased how we can be stronger together, engaging in inspirational ways to explore their shared vision and how they could best work together to make things happen.

My second lesson is to expect the unexpected. Change happens! We experienced transformations all through the process. This included members of the working group and partnerships changing roles, changes to leadership roles within the partnerships, and some members opting out of the work altogether. We handled some tricky financial issues that cropped up. And very sadly, we had to come to terms with the sudden deaths of two people who had walked with us on this journey. Rest in peace, George Gibbons and Leon Mexter.

My final lesson is the need for commitment to first prepare, and then collaborate, on specific projects. Everyone came along with a good degree of commitment. However, it was crucially important to agree a shared vision, with a clear sense of purpose and the will to succeed, including carving time out of very busy schedules. People needed to bring hope, perseverance and strength to deal with some of the curve balls we encountered during the journey.

My thanks go to all the funders who believed in us – Community Foundation Tyne and Wear and Northumberland, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Lily Lewis, National Lottery Community Fund, Paul Hamlyn Foundation and Virgin Money Foundation.

A big thank you to members of the North East Collaboration Working Group and our eight Collaboration Action Fund partnerships. Special thanks to the people of the North East for giving us the space to experiment with this work, and especially to those that attended the conference and all our other activities.

In conclusion, it really is about people. I want to end by thanking every single person who has been on this journey with us.

In the words of Helen Keller: "Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much"