Collaboration and shared leadership 

Better Way roundtable, 5 June 2019


 Caroline Slocock introduced the roundtable, pointing out that in the Better Way, we believe in collaboration and shared leadership because that way people and communities come first.  We’ve already started to explore how to do so through a number of essays in Insights for A Better Way, and blogs on the Better Way website, including from:

  • Toby Lowe, who has written about how co-ordinated action not only better addresses structural causes, it also matches the complexity of individual lives, arguing for commissioning and funding to support this. 

  • Cate Newnes-Smith would like to see more ‘holistic systems leaders’ who understand the real issues in people’s lives and work across organisations and sectors to deliver shared goals. 

  • Polly Neate, who says that large charities should not compete against local charities, to To choose not to win, even though they can.

  • Kathy Evans, whose organisation Children England created the Declaration of Interdependence, advocates listening to your heart, not the head, if you want to follow a Better Way.

  • Audrey Thompson, who says we need ‘social connectors’ who can empower and link up individuals, particularly in disadvantaged communities. 

  • Tom Levitt, who demonstrates that big companies are increasingly reaching out and working innovatively with charities toward shared goals. 

Collaboration - a perspective from the homelessness sector

Rick Henderson is CEO of Homeless Link which now has 780 organisations in its membership. Rick described various experiences of collaboration:

  • The Making Every Adult Matter (MEAM) coalition was a largely successful collaboration to find better ways to support people with multiple disadvantage – across the fields of homelessness, mental health, criminal justice, and substance abuse, and including MIND, Homeless Link, Clinks and DrugScope (now Collective Voice).  The MEAM Coalition has had significant impact at national policy level, influencing the work of the Lottery, leading grant making foundations, and government as well. There were challenges – the founding partners were of different sizes, and there was for example a big difference between the funds they could contribute to make things happen. But the common purpose was clear and much was achieved.

  • Homeless Link adopted a ‘partnerships by default’ policy.  Everything the organisation did would if possible involve at least one partner. The number of partnerships quickly doubled, and there were some gains, not least that more people could be reached. But the rationale was not explained or understood well enough, and practice has drifted back to unilateral work.

  • Homeless Link attempted to form a strategic alliance on migrant destitution. This emerged from a ‘car-crash’ conference where it became clear that the homeless sector was failing to respond well to the changing demographic of homelessness, which included a sharp increase in migrants and refugees. Despite a promising start, the alliance failed, when two leading homeless charities decided to work with the Home Office to support repatriation efforts. It became clear that operating cultures were very different – homeless charities tend to be highly pragmatic, doing what is needed to, for example, help people off the streets, while the refugee sector tends to be driven by a particular set of values.  

Let’s not romanticise the importance of personal relationships. Without a clear common objective, and shared values, it is hard to collaborate successfully. 

Collaboration – a perspective from the refugee sector

Maurice Wren, CEO of the Refugee Council, pointed out that the term ‘refugee sector’ can be misleading.  There are around 1,000 migrant and refugee charities/NGOs. Most are under-resourced, especially for policy work.  Many are fiercely competitive for profile and position, and behaviours can be characterised by fear and suspicion.  In 2015, as a result of the Syrian emergency, the landscape changed and existing agencies were unsure whether new actors were allies or threats. 

There are rarely refugee specific solutions to the problems which refugees have. Most successes are process improvements, changes to regulations for example, behind the scenes, so it is difficult to point to a series of positive changes, although things might well have been worse with the work of the agencies.

It has been difficult to marshal and sustain a critical mass of collaboration. It has not been possible to build a movement. Attempts have implied a top-down model of leadership, reinforcing the difference between ‘professionals’ and ‘amateurs’. 

It might be more helpful to think about ecologies or ecosystems, where the notion of interdependence is forefront. This can produce more equality in the relationships, more voices which can be heard and respected.  It shifts the focus away from leadership and towards co-ordination and organisation.

The Detention Forum is a network of organisations working together to challenge the UK’s use of detention. Some of the 30 organisations which came together hold a highly antagonistic view of government; others are prepared to work with the state.  The Forum was however able to draw up a simple shared vision, and build a practice of collective decision making, respecting those who chose not to take part.  It became evident that the strength of the forum was in its diversity.  It was important to think long term, and about systems change. It is not realistic to expect members to change direction, but rather a gradual process of alignment of many years. It was necessary to invest in co-ordination of the Forum, for the larger members to behave in a more humble way, and for all to be willing to listen and be respectful.  The way the Forum worked and the values that were practised were more important than mission and goals.


Social sector organisations tend to highlight the importance of shared values in discussions about collaboration, but some of the most effective collaboration can take place across sectors where values can be very different, but there is a well-defined common cause and mutual advantage.

Moreover, we should not assume a single set of values operates in the charity sector and another set of different values operates in the business sector.  Values can cross sectors, although more easily at the individual level, and less so at the institutional level.

Shared values can help to build strong teams within and across organisations, and storytelling produces a re-iteration of values, making them relevant and alive.  Values can stimulate spontaneity (mission does not have that effect, it tends to constrains action).

It takes time to build trust, and establish credibility. The models we use in the social sector make collaboration and shared leadership more difficult:

  • The fetishisation of small differences is widespread in the social sector.

  • Governance models encourage the primacy of organisations over collaborative endeavour.

  • Planning gets in the way of spontaneity.

  • There are risks in polite behaviour. If we only look for consensus and avoid conflict, differences are never allowed to surface, and when they do, they become destructive.

Coalescence is necessary to identify and bring about change.  For those in the social sector concerned with change and campaigning, working with others is nearly always necessary. In most cases social change organisations have few resources, so efforts to build alliances and systems thinking come naturally. 

Leadership for social change needs to be more about building relationships and alliances rather than managing resources (although that is still not well recognised in recruitment practice).  For a practice of collaboration to flourish we need leaders who are encouraged to behave as human beings first and foremost, with a willingness to encourage others to develop as leaders. Shared leadership means devolving decision making as close to people as possible, equipping them to become the designers and drivers of change. 

The focus on impact, and in particular the expectation that individual organisations should be able to demonstrate their impact, is damaging.  It is much better to focus on shared outcomes, and on collaboration as a good in itself.

Our world is wired for organisational growth but we need to rewire it for collaboration. We know this is possible; for example, most commissioning makes enemies of friends, but it doesn’t have to be this way; there are positive examples of alliance commissioning in Plymouth, Sheffield and elsewhere.

There is a particular challenge for larger established organisations, and funders, and how they should behave with new entrants and insurgents. Many are wary, but when they do create space for emergence and decide to support newcomers this can make a big difference.

In collaborations where there are inequalities between large and small organisations, we assume that the large ones should be in the driving seat.  But that could be inverted. Local or specialist organisations, which may be closer to lived experience, could be in the driving seat, with any partnership funding flowing through them. One current example is the Health Now initiative, where Lottery funding comes to small charity Groundswell, and much larger national charities Shelter and Crisis are sub-contractors. 

In a competitive capitalist society, size and money matters, and ruthlessness is admired. But in the social sector the most effective smaller organisations are adept at building their power, and those with most resources and in positions of relative power don’t have to ‘act like dicks’.