During the pandemic, neighbours, communities and organisations came together to support each other, meet basic needs and fill the gaps created by the crisis. Combining focus and resources to help people worked – and it got me thinking, how can we learn, replicate and take forward the best from this experience to improve partnership working?

I believe there is more opportunity to work together for greater impact and better tomorrows than ever before. And to make sure that change is sustainable, this approach will continue to be increasingly important. For us at Futures, the creation of the new unitary in West Northamptonshire is one such opportunity to make a bigger difference at a systemic level through partnership, and I’m excited to be a part of what happens next.

So with that in mind, here’s my take on what effective partnerships need to have the biggest impact, drawing from both the pandemic, and the initiatives I’ve been a part of to date.

 1.  A clear, single goal

The first requirement is a singular, common goal. Clarity on the problem you want to solve keeps a forward focus and clear sense of purpose everyone can buy into.

As an example, a goal Futures shares with local partners is achieving sustainable food security in West Northamptonshire. This common goal has instigated a range of initiatives with partners including Fusion21, Business In The Community (BITC), West Northamptonshire Council and the Northampton Hope Centre.

So if you think partnership working could enhance your work, start by asking:

What one problem are you seeking to solve? Who else cares about your goal?

2.  Scalability

Getting buy-in from existing organisations, or individuals in the wider community, who can enable you to scale will improve the sustainability, growth and impact of a project.

This often starts with asking (sometimes stupid) questions to challenge what’s possible. And seeing where the ‘what ifs?’ take you.

Once an idea is formed, you can achieve scalability by connecting partners with different skills, resources and strengths to deliver something tangible. For example, in our current work with Northampton Hope Centre setting up social supermarkets, Futures Housing Group provides resource, growth potential and customer connection, while the centre brings its local experience and knowledge.

When you slow down to ask the right questions, sometimes the connections you need to scale are closer than you think.

So when thinking about scalability, try checking in on these questions:

What skills, resources or strengths do we need? Who could add scalability to the partnership?

3.  Structure and governance

Treating the partnership as you would an organisation brings clarity.

Structure and governance support a partnership to run well in the long-term. But in my experience what works best is when this is designed by the partnership itself – so that it meets the needs of all partners.

An example of this working in practice is the Norfolk Strategic Housing Partnership, which seeks to prevent homelessness in Norfolk. Born out of relationships formed during the pandemic, we were able to shift from a tactical partnership into a strategic one by wrapping a business case around what was working. 

By demonstrating that working across a wide geography would continue to have a long-term, sustainable impact beneficial to all partners, we were able to secure the partnership’s future. It is now owned and run by partners across Norfolk.

When designing structures and governance as a partnership, you can check in with this question:

What will support all partners to achieve absolute focus and delivery?

4.  The right conversations

One of the great things about partnership working is that it gives you different lenses through which to view the same challenge. The right conversations between the right people always result in new, creative approaches to solving a problem.

So how do you engage the right people?

Something we found helpful at Norfolk Strategic Housing Partnership was hiring an independent chair and facilitator who spoke the language of business leaders and decision makers. Removing the bias of organisational representation allowed for more openness and collaboration – as well as enabling us to get in front of the right people and have conversations around strategic priorities and aspirations.

The other way to get people to engage is to run a pilot or ‘exemplar’ project. Tangible results that demonstrate impact of partnership working are powerful testimonials to extending your reach and message – whether your ambitions are at a local community level or aimed at the national stage.

To start the right conversations, ask:

Who needs to be in the room? Who can speak their language?

5.  Measures of success

As with any strategic initiatives, partnerships benefit from measures of success. Here at Futures we believe in measures rather than targets because what gets measured gets done.

When developed strategically, measures demonstrate whether all parts of the partnership are working as they should be. This means that they are:

  • Aligned to the common goal
  • Sustainable through scalability
  • Owned through clear structures and roles
  • Relevant to the current presentation/context of the challenge.

A great way to help you shape your measures is to ask each party to answer this question.

What does good look like?

And – especially with long-term projects – identifying milestones is an important part of this, so you can recognise and celebrate success on the journey.  

I firmly believe that systemic change really is possible when we take a partnership approach.

I hope you have found this useful. But more than anything, I hope it makes your partnership better.

Does it require resilience and determination? Absolutely. But when it gets hard, just keep going it because the goal is worth it.