Collaboration: can you do more together than alone?
The Audience Agency leadership team shares its experience of the pains and gains of collaboration and partnership working.
"Different organisations, or even the departments and teams within them, speak different languages. The language of tourism is different from that of culture or local retailers just as the language of policy and the public sector is different from that of community organisations. This can make partnership hard work. Translating for different stakeholders is time-consuming but essential."
Two years ago, cultural leaders said that collaboration was the sector’s most resilient but overrated behaviour. In our pre-pandemic research for Arts Council England, What Is Resilience Anyway, we asked people to rate the importance of 20 organisational behaviours recognised as ‘resilient’. Networking was rated by leaders as one of the resilient behaviours most commonly displayed by cultural organisations – but scored it low in terms of its importance.
The Audience Agency CEO Anne Torreggiani now asks: “How many people feel that way in the new world order?” Covid-19 has driven all sorts of new and unexpected co-operation and mutual support; clearly that’s not bad news. Our networks have been a lifeline during the pandemic, and one good thing that might come out of this chaos is a new appetite to work together. That’s going to be more important than ever, especially if we are to rise to the challenge of rebuilding and reconnecting our communities.
What will it take? Facilitating and supporting a range of very different collaborations is one of The Audience Agency’s core roles; we’ve been involved with more than 100 in the past two years. Our team has observed that working collaboratively is not always the easiest way – and certainly not the quickest way – of getting things done. It’s important to recognise it’s a long game, but one that can offer the reward of greater scope and reach. So, what can we do to give partnership working the best chance of success?
As leader of The Audience Agency’s consulting team, Penny Mills has worked on scores of collaborative projects, often as lead evaluator. Her advice is that if you aren’t sure whether a group has a shared sense of purpose, you must focus on that first – “and be willing to walk away if it’s not really there.” She says that partnerships need leaders, money on the table, time to develop and a purpose that is easy to explain. “But what’s most important is that you know what you are getting into and all agree about why.” If, for example, one partner is only interested in reaching under-served local groups and another is seeking high-spend tourist visitors, tensions will soon start to show.
Playing to strengths
As well as a shared vision, collaborators also need to have complementary skills, experience and resources. You need to know who’s bringing what to the party, otherwise a great vision or idea can get side-tracked deciding who’s responsible for what or waiting for another partner to get on with things.
Penny observes that it’s common to say that working in partnership requires trust and commitment: “In fact it’s easier to say than do.” Ideally, she says, you work with those who share your values and dreams but that’s not always realistic. You can still create the right conditions for trust to grow by being sure you want the same things and being honest and direct about it. “It’s easier to respect and trust each other when you are all playing to your strengths and not duplicating or competing,” Penny notes.
Actions speak louder than words
As one leader of a Great Place Scheme Nations project said: “offer something, not strategy”. Lucie Fitton, Head of the Creative Citizens Team, says they try to create opportunities for people to get involved rather than steering group meetings. “It is often when partners can see a room full of activity - taking part, having fun, making plans, sharing ideas - that they have a eureka moment and work out what they have to give and gain.”
Striking the right tone
Different organisations, or even the departments and teams within them, speak different languages. The language of tourism is different from that of culture or local retailers just as the language of policy and the public sector is different from that of community organisations. This can make partnership hard work. Translating for different stakeholders is time-consuming but essential. Penny remarks that: “If you can’t easily find a shared language, strip it back and use plain, straightforward terms.” It can be worth thinking about your collaboration project as a campaign, getting everyone involved with creating and amplifying a clear ‘brand’ that can be plainly communicated to all. Two of our clients have done this brilliantly. London Borough of Culture and Galway City of Culture both have a strong vision for social and civic change shared by a large number of diverse partners.
Evidence: building commitment
Once you are clear about what your collaboration is trying to achieve, you need evidence to shape it and build commitment. Oliver Mantell, The Audience Agency’s Director of Policy Research says evidence allows you to “articulate your collective impact, to tell a bigger and better story and imagine a next stage.” He gives the example of some joint analysis with organisations in Doncaster which showed not just that they had made a substantial cumulative impact, but that they complemented each other. Collectively they had much better coverage, engaging a broader range of the local population than any one of them could have done alone.
Shared intelligence and resilience
We also work with many groups across the UK who use shared data as an engine for collaboration. Oliver cites the Yorkshire Venues group as a “stand out” for the longevity and transparency of their partnership. “They demonstrate that this type of collaboration works best when there’s a desire to be better in the sense of ‘to improve’, rather than ‘to be superior,’” Oliver says. “Although there can be a little friendly rivalry, they recognise that the main competitors for audiences’ attention are other activities (or the sofa).”
Oliver believes this type of data sharing is only going to be more important as we emerge from the pandemic. There are likely to be both commonalities and differences in audiences’ behaviour, depending on sector, location and audience profile. For these reasons, it is vital to make your data shareable and shared. At The Audience Agency, we share what we find out about key trends, based on Audience Finder and the COVID-19 Cultural Participation Monitor. But local collaborations will be more valuable than ever to understand what impact we can and should make at the local, city and county level.
Should we stay or should we go?
Here’s our checklist for organisations embarking on new partnerships:
- Are you and your stakeholders willing to put in more time than you think?
- Do you and your potential partners want the same things and share the same purpose?
- Do you all bring something different and required to the table?
- Is that a strong enough basis for trust?
- Can you campaign together?
- Are you ready to share data and learning?
- And – the acid test – can you achieve more together than alone?
If you answered yes to all the above, it’s certainly worth scheduling that Zoom call…
This article first appeared in Arts Professional on 15th March 2021 as part of The Audience Agency's series sharing insights into the audiences for arts and culture.