“Partnerships are one of the great joys..”
Launceston’s New Horizons Tasmania is a great example of how a tiny community organisation can use partnerships to really punch above its weight, to achieve and thrive with their community connections and ability to capitalise on their work and reputation to land some pretty big fish. (See here to find out more about New Horizons Tasmania).
Since 1986, New Horizons has worked towards building inclusive communities through developing pathways for people with disability to participate in the everyday sporting activities most people take for granted, such as AFL, cricket, swimming and tennis.
Edwina Dick, who manages partnerships for New Horizons, reflects that “everything we do is partnership. They are the lifeblood of our organisation”. Built into everything the organisation does is a network of partnerships, from formal agreements with corporate organisations such as the AFL, to the agreements with volunteers which enables the day to day work of New Horizons.
“Volunteers don’t just turn up to help with footy training, volunteers assist with every aspect of our operations, including participation as coaches and sporting officials, supervision of events, administration, fundraising and sponsorship. Without this partnership approach, New Horizons would not function.”
“We’re nothing without our partners”
Partnership thinking is so embedded in New Horizons’ DNA that if it is faced with a problem, or looking to develop a new program or approach, staff nearly always consider appropriate partners and readily ‘reach out’. They view the process of partnering as a shared value proposition, that New Horizons and its partners share a goal of building inclusivity together, which allows New Horizons to be bold and seek out what is needed. It’s not easy for community organisations to contact corporations, but if there is a shared view and goal, such as building inclusivity, it’s much easier to assume support could be willingly and freely given. This shared values approach has enabled New Horizons to build its partnership networks from individual volunteers, to local community organisations, to corporates, to state and national partners including Tasmanian AFL, Cricket Tas, and the Hawthorn Football Club.
Taking a values based approach sometimes requires saying ‘No’ to potential partnerships, even if it means missing out on a lucrative deal. Standing by its values has meant New Horizons has declined to partner with organisations that are, for example, not accessible to wheelchair users, or aren’t a great fit for athletes.
The ability to call in support from partners doesn’t come from nowhere, and Edwina thinks that the reason why New Horizon builds such successful partnerships is because of the focus on relationships and trust.
“Partnerships simply won’t achieve without great relationships, open communication, and a willingness to treat the partnership as growing and evolving. Transparency, communication and time, lead to an enduring and fruitful commitment. Building strong relationships leads to trust, and this in turn leads to one of the most valuable outcomes of all - a strong reputation.”
New Horizons’ reputation as a reliable, innovative and high achieving partner allows it to source new solutions and partners quickly, to meet an emerging need.
“Building partnership trust takes time, however a” commitment to the relationship with partners delivers invaluable relationship payoffs when your partner sings your praises to the wider community.”
Whether you have a formal agreement with a partner or not depends a lot on what you are trying to achieve through the partnership, but Edwina believes that New Horizons will move to articulating all partnerships, big, small, volunteer or corporate, at least to an MOU level of commitment.
“While it might feel a little clunky, especially with volunteers, it provides a framework that ensures that you have a joint approach and shared understanding about what the partnership entails. Taking this approach with volunteers with intellectual disability goes a long way to respecting and validating the commitment people with disability make in partnership with New Horizons.”
Big Fish/Little Fish (or Mutual Benefits)
Many community organisations are wary of working with larger partners or corporations, and can feel that they are on the back foot, asking for a handout. Edwina is clear that the partnership only works if there are benefits for all partners and the ‘favour’ being asked of a partner is also presenting them with an opportunity.
“While the AFL Tas and Cricket Tas have been great supporters of New Horizons, the arrangement has been beneficial for the partners also, as they are able to call on New Horizons as inclusion experts to work on joint projects, such as the recent National Inclusion AFL Carnival. This mutually beneficial relationship has grown over the years to the stage where AFL Tas now cites New Horizons in their community and inclusion planning.”
Hawthorn Football Club’s Tasmanian wing utilise their developing partnership with New Horizons by calling on the organisation with queries around developing and executing their inclusion key performance indicators. Big corporations may make a commitment to inclusion, but often lack confidence around actually delivering, so the rewards for partnership go both ways, benefitting all parties.
“Cricket Australia also nominated New Horizons as their Partner of the Year for 2018 so there is some evidence that our work is getting the respect and gravitas it deserves.”
Having a range of partners from individual volunteers to big corporates demands a range of skills that might not exist in the one organisation. While many community organisations might be right at home developing partnerships with other like-minded organisations, working with government and other partners can be daunting. Edwina’s approach to accessing these different skills is, of course, more partners! If New Horizons is liaising with an unfamiliar government department over a potential piece of work or partnership, they will call on skilled bureaucrats, to assist them with building connections and confidence in a more formal environment.
New Horizons’ ability to change and adapt is the key to success with partners, and has also changed the way it markets itself. Younger members of New Horizons are brand savvy, plus corporates are by necessity, image-aware. The way that New Horizons had traditionally presented itself no longer matched the contemporary and dynamic flavour of the organisation, so sought support to revisit its brand (more partners!) and worked on refreshing the logo and look. Edwina believes that this ongoing work is important in engaging corporate and government partners, as the updated New Horizons’look is more professional, attractive, and therefore marketable.
Reflecting on the impact of their partnerships, Edwina said that the outcomes are often more substantial than they appear. When Launceston hosted a national inclusion activity, led by a partnership between AFL Tas, Hawthorn Football Club, New Horizons, Events Tasmania, Tourism Northern Tasmania and Launceston City Council, the event was incredibly successful. New Horizons, whilst driving inclusion, was also able to raise substantial funds by utilizing qualified volunteers to cater the week long event, which in turn is supporting its ongoing AFL program. New Horizons was also proud to see recognition of the ‘tourist dollar’ spent in the Launceston region resulting from the hundreds of participants attending the event.
Key to Success
Edwina identifies a ‘common goal’ as the most important success factor for partnerships, and that relationships are everything, particularly in small communities. She reflects that New Horizons has been ‘lucky’ in its partnerships.
“Partnerships as one of the joys of New Horizons suggests something more than luck - that seeing the value of everyone’s unique contribution, and a commitment to building inclusion, means that we at New Horizons are all modelling what it means to live our values and this is what has delivered outstanding partnerships.”
‘If you don’t ask, you’ll be in the same position you were before..’
Rawcus is an ensemble theatre company made up of performers with, and without disability. Based in Melbourne, they have grown over the last eighteen years from a tiny local theatre group to a critically acclaimed, award winning company who are now stretching their wings to overseas performances. Kate Sulan, the founding Director of Rawcus, is passionate about working with people from diverse backgrounds, and ensuring that Rawcus’ work is brave, creative, open, vulnerable, and authentic.
Partnerships have been an integral part of Rawcus. In fact, the genesis of Rawcus is through a three way partnership between a theatre group (Theatreworks), a disability organisation (Scope) and a local council (City of Port Phillip). While the partnership evolved over time, the relationship with Port Phillip has consolidated and they are now a ‘key organisation with a formal funding agreement’, where Port Phillip provides office space and other resources to Rawcus.
Rawcus is so embedded in a partnership model that there are no projects without partnerships. It is their ‘modus operandi’. It offers the flexibility to expand their artistic horizons, and develop into areas of performance that could not be achieved without partnerships, such as with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, or MSF Sports basketball players.
While partnerships bring collaboration, new perspectives and ways of working, new opportunities and expertise, there is another reason why they are part of Rawcus’ approach. Funders are more likely to invest in a partnership model, than funding applications from single entities. This forces an interdependency between partners, where they must collaborate and partner in order to secure finance. Clearly Rawcus is now expert at developing successful partnerships.
This skill of working with partners means that the way they interact varies from long term financial patronage, to project specific opportunities that are single focused and time limited. Often the project partnership will be to bring in a particular area of expertise that Rawcus doesn’t have, such as production expertise, dance, or access to theatre space.
Even though Rawcus depends on partnerships, they are really thoughtful about who they will and won’t work with in a partnership, and if it doesn’t feel right, it won’t happen. Kate reflected that the feeling of ‘rightness’ is about a value match, but this isn’t articulated in conversation, but more likely to be addressed in a roundabout way. Some of the initial conversations are based on what it is you want to get out of the partnership and this often unearths some of the agendas sitting behind a potential partner’s perspective, that even they may not be aware of.
“It would be great if we could talk about values more directly, but most organisations are unused to this. Some organisations are practiced in the values conversation, others are developing their skills and thinking about how to have these important conversations.”
Kate’s advice about making sure that partnerships go well, is to be as detailed as you can in developing agreements. At the negotiating stage, partners often start off by saying that small things don’t matter, such as sign off on media statements, or ownership of IP, thinking that you can work things out as you go along. But Kate says this is exactly where things come unstuck, as ownership of the material is ‘currency’, and will be relied upon in the future to attract more work and funding. Experience has taught her that leadership through negotiating partnership agreements and articulating exactly who does what and when and how, and importantly, who has ownership and responsibility, saves heartbreak and conflict, later on.
Successful partnerships also need everyone to be on board.
“It’s really important to get buy-in from the whole organisation, not just individuals”, says Kate. “Sometimes partnerships fail if a passionate person leads the partnership, but it can’t be delivered because the organisation hasn’t really agreed, or the person leaves and there is no real engagement from the whole organisation.”
Partnership surprises have included how willing people are to investigate whether there are ways to work together. Kate says you must show courage in taking the first steps, and she is constantly surprised at how even a cold call to an organisation where you have no connections or relationship, can lead to a great collaboration. This is exactly how as part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, the Rawcus-Fanaticus partnership began.
Kate reflected that the disability community can be insular, and people often think that either the wider world isn’t interested or are afraid to ask about collaboration and engagement. Kate has found the opposite to be true.
“If you are prepared for the conversation and can articulate what you can bring, and the benefits for their organisation, you will be amazed by the willingness of people to start the partnership conversation. Until you ask, you just don’t know what the other party has to contribute, and it may well be that instead of asking a favour, you are solving their problems about what you can offer them”.
Kate said that even if the partnership isn’t right, just having a conversation can deliver an outcome such as opening other funding doors, referrals and introductions, or new ways of thinking about solving problems or refining project ideas. “You have to be brave, and ask. You won’t be sorry.”
When it comes to partnership, Kate says that relationships are everything. But it can take time. Partnerships require trust to be built between the parties, and usually this takes about a year to develop. When a partnership completes a project, they share a narrative, a story where they are all players and this experience builds strength and rapport for the next collaboration.
The success of Rawcus has been dependent on their ability to initiate, drive and collaborate through partnerships. Their creativity depends on this as does their financial viability. However, things are changing. Over the years, Rawcus has been the one that has approached organisations for partnership opportunities, but they are starting to be on the receiving end of offers, especially from fledging regional artistic groups. Finding themselves courted as a partner is a sure sign of success, as a theatre company, and as a partner.
All Rawcus photos are credited to Paul Dunn and Sarah Walker
Swipe Right to Partner: The Tech Sector partnering with the Community Sector
The Housing Hub is an innovative website developed by the Summer Foundation which advertises disability housing opportunities across Australia all in the one spot - kind of like realestate.com.au for disability housing. The Housing Hub pilot was funded by government and has grown to become the go to site for all accommodation needs. The ultimate aim is to grow The Hub to a matching service for people who have very high supports to connect with their perfect housing solution. Splunk is a multinational software company that builds big data software.
The Housing Hub site is aspirational, and not usually the bread and butter of community organisations, so the opportunities for partnerships were not obvious, other than with the government that co-funded the Housing Hub.
So what made the opportunity for partnership with a multinational IT software company come about? Relationships. And Lateral Thinking.
One of the project workers for The Housing Hub is married to an engineer at Splunk and was aware that Splunk4Good (Splunk’s corporate social responsibility arm) had released US$100 million* over ten years for not for profits, universities and others to be supported by Splunk. That’s a lot of money. Discussions began about whether Splunk could have a role in the ‘back end’ design of the website, helping capture data about what people with disability were searching for, which would then contribute to helping providers build and design what people really want. Community organisations aren’t usually found at the forefront of cutting edge technology. This concept hadn’t taken off anywhere in Australia, so it was an exciting step to take.
How did we start?
The initial conversations between Splunk4Good and The Housing Team were comical - finding times suitable for San Francisco and Melbourne over compatible tech systems was the first hurdle, followed by the challenges of speaking the same language. Although ostensibly both partners spoke English, the community sector and the tech sector speak their own dialects. To overcome such difficulties, we added some structure so that both parties could understand each other, we factored in a lot of time to listen to each other’s stories, what our organisations did, and eventually came to an agreement that we could work together. As the organisations were so different in culture, size, resources, values and core business, we had to be very conscious about checking in to see if we really understood each other.
The structure we used was quite a formal one, with regular meetings and involved the Splunk4Good team in San Francisco, the Housing Hub team in Melbourne, and a local Splunk engineer to work directly with us. Assigning times, tasks, and a project management approach helped us work out what we wanted, how we would get there and who had responsibility for what. This approach was integral to making sure the partnership worked.
Splunk was built into the website construction and now powers the data analytics for thehousinghub.com.au. Yay. All of the staff working on the team are able to use the technology. Also the website administrator completed Splunk training and can use the software in a sophisticated way. Two years on, the partnership is still in place, and Splunk continues to provide data analytics pro bono for The Housing Hub. The partnership in its original form doesn’t require much work as it continues ticking over in the background.
What are the benefits?
This partnership was very successful in that it provides an outcome that doesn’t really exist in the community sector. The potential to model such a partnership to the community sector also encourages others to take a leap into an area of technology in which there has not been much engagement. The ability for two such different partners to learn from each other was an unintended consequence of the partnership, and probably the most exciting. A Splunk team member conducted an education session about using big data for Summer Foundation staff, and sowed the seeds to start using the software in their day to day work, such as using on their websites, or facebook or twitter feed. Splunk also benefited from their new understanding of the issues of housing and disability, of young people in residential aged care. Splunk began to appreciate the challenges faced by the community sector, particularly how far behind the technical revolution it sits, and how much is required to get to a stage where others can benefit from new technology. Splunk also got an insight into how poorly resourced most community organisations are - a great way to illustrate to the corporate world that there is a lot they can do to assist and ensure their social corporate responsibility has a real impact.
Partnerships rise and fall based on the quality of relationships and this was no different. As the partnership progressed, trust was built and a range of opportunities were explored, including an offer from Splunk to supply support staff, write up the partnership arrangement as a model for other organisations, and the expansion of Splunk to the housing hub’s sister organisations. The progression of the partnership grew as trust between the parties grew, and a creative, dynamic approach to partnership was formed.
What did we learn?
One of the main lessons from this partnership was the number of opportunities available that are there just for the asking, and that corporations benefit from the opportunities community organisations provide by assisting them to understand how they can contribute. Despite the huge differences and approaches between The Housing Hub partners, it was easy and exciting to form a successful partnership.
The downside to the partnership arising from a personal relationship is what happened when the project lead left The Housing Hub. After this, the partnership stagnated and further opportunities to grow the partnership weren’t explored. While the technical support arrangements still exist between the Housing Hub and Splunk, they consist mainly of analytic supports for the website. The opportunity to grow a stronger, healthier and thriving partnership faded without someone investing in driving it forward.
Splunk’s reflections on the partnership is that they were ill-equipped to understand how to make a partnership work with an organisation that was so different to their own day to day work. Engineers might be great at building software, but designing for unsophisticated IT users was a challenge. With hindsight, the engineer thought that Splunk4Good needed to access some training on working with the community sector, and how to develop and drive relationships in different sectors.
Taking a global view, this partnership is a success in that two years on, Splunk still support The Housing Hub with their technology needs, and the aims of the partnership have been achieved. A refresh to the partnership would allow both partners to explore how else they can grow the partnership and get the most from it.
*US$100 million! Have a look at Splunk4Good and see if there are any opportunities for you.