Building Better Way organisations

London cell 1: 12th September 2017

What are the challenges of trying to live up to Better Way principles in an organisation?  That was the issue we discussed in the founding cell on 12 September 2017.

Steve Wyler opened the discussion by saying that two of the greatest challenges facing organisations that aspired to A Better Way were 'collaboration is better than competition' and 'mass participation is better than centralised power.' 

On collaboration, he gave the example of the Development Trusts Association, which he had led before it merged into Locality.  Like many voluntary organisations in recent years, it had become increasingly competitive in its relationship with other bodies, as resources diminished.  It had developed methodologies to support community ownership, which it wanted to exploit commercially, even considering taking out copyright.  But eventually it realised that this was not consistent with its values and it shared its knowledge freely with 'competitors'. Counter-intuitively it found that collaboration increased its financial success and the organisation grew. 

The truth the Development Trusts Association  discovered was that the model of market competition actually did not fit the situation, since products emerged though shared knowledge, and the market (funding for community development) was not finite but was capable of being grown.    Furthermore, the way to achieve sustainability was to grow a confident, capable and outward-looking movement, and this would attract resources and investment and produce income-generating opportunities.  Collaboration also put them in a much stronger position to shape the localism agenda for the benefit of their members and whole community sector.  The same instinct toward collaboration led to the merger with BASSAC and the creation of a larger and even more influential body, Locality.

As we talked about it, it became clear that a focus on cause, rather than the organisation, took you naturally to collaboration.  The need to find resources to keep organisations afloat was, we reflected, a very common challenge but it could easily take organisations away from their core mission and values and threaten their underlying independence. 

Competition has generally been seen as the primary way to achieve efficiency in the post-Thatcher era, and this needs to be challenged, we thought, at least in the social sphere. 

However, we also considered whether competitive behaviours can sometimes produce positive outcomes.  They can greatly improve value for money, particularly in the private sector.  It is also true that some small local charities do need the pressure to change that competition can bring and some are not fit for purpose.  And there are examples where competition for funds has driven innovation in the voluntary sector.  Competition, we recognised, was not always about money.  Reputations, and the desire to maintain control, could lead to competition too.  It could be quite a natural force. 

We also noted that competition can be combined with collaboration.  We see this for example in many sports where high levels of competition exist (clubs competing for the best players; players competing against each other to be selected for teams; teams competing against other teams to win trophies) but within this collaboration among players in a team is essential for sporting success and among teams in a federation for financial success. Similar patterns are sometimes found in the commercial world.  Should the social sector always be different, or not?

We agreed that competition is an inappropriate model for activities that rely on the delivery of a common purpose or wider cause.  In the West London Zone, for example, organisations work together to achieve place-based impact.

Collaboration is therefore important but it can end up being cosmetic, as happened for example in many  Single Regeneration Budget partnerships, and which still happens in many collaborations which are little more than a device to raise funds and achieve profile for individual organisations.,   

We talked about how competition has led the voluntary sector to create ever-larger organisations to create apparent economies of scale, taking work from smaller ones.  This can bring benefits in some cases, if done well, but it can also lead to 'diseconomies of scale' and poor social value, as argued by a Locality report on this subject, particularly when it comes to providing support to individuals facing complex problems.  An industrial model for social issues does not work and small specialist and/or community-based organisations are often better placed to create social as opposed to financial value.  The 'forest floor', not just the big trees that provide the canopy, can be just as important, we concluded. 

We talked about how charitable foundations had themselves adopted increasingly competitive models and about the pros and cons of this.  One example was where a consortium of funders had invited competitive bids for a fund, but the organisations involved asked if they could work collaboratively instead.  The funders turned this idea down, losing an opportunity for different place-based organisations to combine forces and learning.

It is also common practice now for charitable foundations to go out to tender for work to be provided by voluntary sector organisations.  But voluntary organisations, unlike private sector ones, cannot recoup this sometimes very costly development work (some of which will always be unsuccessful) through their profits, as they already operate on a shoe-string, and there is an opportunity cost to the sector in using up its scarce resources in competitive activity in this way.  That said, it was understandable that foundations wanted to get the very best support for their projects and competition is currently the tried and tested method for doing so.

Britain is crying out for a new vision of how social change is achieved which puts collaboration and shared goals at its heart, we thought.  This would replace the view that competition is the best means for delivering real value.  The new vision would be anchored on collective goals and driven by a new kind of 'weightless engine' achieved through collaboration.  Self-interest in this new vision would be seen as leading to collaboration, not competition, and would be recognised as being more productive than the pursuit of selfishness. 

We then had a brief discussion about the value of mass participation and the difficulty of consulting widely when organisations are undergoing potentially fatal financial challenges under great time pressure.  We discussed examples where Boards and senior teams had had to move swiftly to protect the future of organisations and the challenges this brought.  Might the decisions have been better if more people had been involved?  Could other solutions have been found?  We recognised that there are situations where rapid decisions are required and leaders are forced to rely on internalised values and their focus on mission when they work in emergency 'fight or flight' mode.  But the danger is that the Better Way principles are only 'fair weather' friends.  The real test of an idea is whether it can survive a pounding and whether our propositions can survive in the real world.  Part of the problem here is that our models of leadership, which are internalised and deeply cultural, can lead us to command and control behaviours in times of pressure.  Shifting that leadership model is required.  We do not have enough examples of distributed leadership in the voluntary sector or indeed elsewhere, we thought.

We ended up by reflecting that the Better Way propositions are not prescriptive.  Collaboration may often be better than competition, but not always, and likewise with mass participation versus centralised power.  We are trying to swing the pendulum, not create a rigid set of rules, and should not be disheartened if 'rules' are sometimes broken.