Collaboration over Competition: A whistle stop tour of what working with others could do for your organisation

Collaboration over Competition: A whistle stop tour of what working with others could do for your organisation

Rebecca Churcher-Soden is the Associate Director of Strategy and Projects at Cause4.

Whilst we often think about who our competitors are, we probably think a little less about them in the context of collaboration. However, collaboration in the heritage sector can bring many benefits, enriching both individual projects and the sector. Here are a few reasons why collaborating on your next project might be a good thing to consider!

Shared Resources

Collaborating can often allow organisations to pool resources, including funding, expertise, data, and equipment. Funders like to see collaboration and partnership working as it reduces unnecessary duplication and demonstrates a desire to grow. This funding, however, can take time to raise. By working together, you could not only demonstrate a far greater reach of impact, but you could also share the time it takes to write funding applications or split the marketing costs to deliver a funding campaign. Just be sure to work out how this funding will be distributed (more on this later).

A great example of a collaboration is the Archaeology Audience Network. Beginning in 2021, the project aimed to create an in-depth picture of the audiences that public and community archaeology attracts. It brought together audience data from a variety of organisations including Wessex Archaeology, York Archaeology, the Council for British Archaeology and Oxford Archaeology, to name but a few. By gathering data from so many different Archaeological institutions across England, the project hoped to get a sector wide, national understanding of who the organisations were reaching and, crucially, who they were not.

The Network also worked directly with grassroots community organisations to develop learning and engagement activities that more accurately reflected the needs and interests of diverse audiences.

As a result, Network has worked together to produce best practice guidance, summarising the conclusions of its work, and providing support for others to implement changes themselves.

Diverse Perspectives

By working with others, you can tap into a diverse range of perspectives and expertise. This diversity can foster innovation and creativity, leading to richer and more inclusive heritage organisations, projects, and interpretation.

Building the views of those with lived and professional experience into the development of your heritage project from the beginning can help ensure that your work is relevant and meets the needs and interests of the communities that you wish to engage. This can be achieved in a range of ways, but can include anything from semi-structured interviews, to focus groups, volunteers, to a more formal advisory groups or panels.

By building relationships and trust, you can also reflect broad cultural heritage in the stories that you tell, so that as many people as possible see a part of themselves in your organisation, making your work more relevant, accessible, and inclusive.

Capacity Building

Collaborating can also involve skills and knowledge transfer, meaning you could learn from each other's experiences and gain new skills and knowledge to benefit both organisations.

The National Trust Partnership is an example of an award-winning collaboration between Oxford University and the National Trust (NT). It has fuelled interdisciplinary research, knowledge exchange, skills development, and public engagement with NT collections.

For example, Oxford University academics and NT experts carried out cutting-edge research into the NT’s inspiring places and collections to create ‘Trusted Source’ - a collection of short and easy-to-understand articles about history, culture and the natural environment. This research was then embedded across NT’s interpretation and public programming initiatives, with activities including academic placements and consultancy, staff training, conferences, workshops, public lectures and events, student internships and opportunities for Early Career Researchers.

Getting Started with Collaboration

So, you’ve read about a few of the benefits of collaborating. But how do you get started?

Shared values amongst partners is a common theme for successful collaborations, so a good place to start would be to undertake a mapping exercise of the organisations that you are already connected with. Once you initiate the conversation, there are some steps you can take to create a solid foundation to build on:

  • Commitment to a shared goal is vital. It can be helpful to discuss and agree what each partner is looking to get out of the collaboration, both individually and collectively. Setting out the aims and objectives of the project can be a good way of understanding and agreeing what everyone wants to achieve.
  • All partners should gain something from collaborating, whether it is increasing capacity, accessing skills and knowledge, increasing impact and reach, or leveraging funding. It is important that a collaboration is founded upon mutual benefit so that it’s a win-win situation for everyone.
  • It is only fair that each partner knows what is expected from them, so that there are no surprises. Time and capacity are precious to us all. Creating an outline project plan with key milestones and designation of responsibilities can help to work this detail out.
  • Whilst collaboration works best when everyone is seen as equals, a lead partner is often required when securing funding from Trusts and Foundations. The lead partner will become the recipient of the funding and enter into the contractual agreements. Any distribution of funding should be laid out in a contract or agreement between partners, and it can be a good idea to seek advice on drafting this before you start seeking funding.
  • Trust and clarity are essential. The components set out above can form a range of agreements depending on the stage and scale of the project. Examples can include a memorandum of understanding, a partnership agreement, or a formal contract that can be used when specific deliverables and finances are involved.
  • Clear communication is key to any partnership. Be sure to build in regular catchups to measure progress against project objectives, timescales, targets, deliverables. Remember things often don’t always go 100% to plan, being upfront and transparent with your partners will mean you can work together on the solutions.

Maybe next time you think about who your competitors are, you might also stop to think who your potential partners could be. But remember to do it for the right reasons - keep impact in mind and your beneficiaries needs at the forefront of your planning.