Partnership and collaboration – what does that really mean ‘in practice’ to sport?

Posted: Thu, 19 Jan 2012 11:06

By Linda Plowright

Some years ago – after already clocking up 20 years in management of mass community sports participation – I was rendered speechless by a new link officer from another national sporting body earnestly impressing upon me that what I needed to do was to "work in partnership with other sports bodies". Wasn't that rather an obvious piece of advice? Some 10 years later this moment has still left its mark and it is now impossible to go through a day without our Government agencies, funders and customers all exhorting the same 'best practice'. Now don't get me wrong. I'm all in favour of not duplicating, of 'adding value' to what other organisations do but what seems increasingly confusing to me is exactly what we now all mean in our jumble sale of sports services by the term 'partnership'. One thing is certain – it means different things to different people and to different organisations. It was out of this confusion that I recently made a bit of a study of "what collaboration means in practice to voluntary leaders of community sport". What I found there applies at an organisational level too.

In this modest study I found a clear polarisation of views between the volunteers managing our community sports clubs and the professionals - public or private sectors - with whom they seek to work in partnership or between whom partnership is 'thrust'. The voluntary sector often resented being 'told what to do' by their professional partner – even if sometimes they were receiving money from that partner to do it. The professional partner constantly sought a 'professional structure, systems and procedures' that were otherwise unnecessary to the voluntary organisation to prove that the other were capable and trustworthy. As is often the case, there was evidence of right on all sides. The professional partner sought to dictate methods and outcomes which went beyond what their contribution of money paid for in their attempt to become comfortable with the 'partnership'. Meanwhile the volunteers came to believe sometimes that their funding was a 'rightful reward for the voluntary time that they were donating' and perhaps forgot the need to deliver agreed targeted work.

Let me say here that I am sceptical that true partnership can be achieved where there is an exchange of funding – but I want to be proven wrong. Partnership is not where one body pays and another delivers – that's a contract and is an efficient way of getting services delivered but it doesn't necessarily pay for 'added value'. Contracting out services to voluntary sector does not therefore necessarily create 'added value' although it may reduce the professional cost of buying those services. To use the language of partnership and achieving 'added value' in what is otherwise a 'contracting out' of services is therefore misleading and doomed to failure – unless in addition to that contracting relationship a true collaboration between partners is achieved.

An increasing body of research guides us to recognise that true partnership is based upon commitment to clear shared goals, trust and enthusiasm for working with partners on a very personal level. To this I would add an explicitly understood balanced power within the partnership where the pursuit of added value is a shared activity with shared rights over decision making. I would like to refer to this as collaboration – simply to distinguish between what we working in sport need to achieve to get that 'added value' from working together.

It seems to me therefore that there is a flaw in over insistence in partnerships by funding bodies if what they are aiming for is that 'added value', unless the bodies are truly drawn to collaborate. Could it not be that we need to take a lesson from our parks designers who wait to see where people walk – the desire lines - before they put in the paths. Funders should stop forcing consortia and collaboration in their grant aid programmes and look around for those bodies that are already in true collaborative relationships which fit. What would this mean? Well some greater honesty on the part of organisations seeking to develop their work using funders' money may be needed. Greater rigour in analysing if funding is truly taking forward the organisation's own core objectives and if these and their organisational values are really shared by the other partners so that there is trust and enthusiasm to work together. Those bringing money to a programme may need to be clearer about the language they use. Contracting pays for specific outputs. Partnership suggests something more than providing the funding and collaboration certainly suggests a sharing of power to decide upon the way in which work is developed. It is in collaboration that I think added value happens.

I mentioned the needs of the professionals for structures and systems of management that the volunteer sector otherwise don't need. Could true collaboration render this unnecessary? I think so but that is another blog's worth.

Linda Plowright (author of this blog) is CEO of Sports Leaders UK and independent charity in sport working with 200,000 sports leaders each year. She has an MBA and MSC in Business and Research Methods and a research interest in collaborative working relationships between the voluntary and professional providers of sport in the UK. Sports Leaders UK is pleased to be a founding member of the Sports Think Tank.

Tags: Sport, Volunteering, Partnerships, Collaboration, Participation


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