Best bits: Forming a charity consortium

Our latest online debate discussed building a voluntary sector consortium. Here are our expert panellists’ views.

John Gillespie – business planning consultant at ACEVO

Many consortia are finding it hard to access investment without the relationships in place with commissioners: And commissioners won’t commission to consortia that don’t have the capacity.

There is a significant amount of interest from local authorities in supporting consortia: We’ve developed a project that starts with commissioners and seeks to support them to reach out to the sector and possibly support development of a consortium in a service area matching their interest.

Clare McManus – director, eventus and chair, Sheffield Well-being Consortium

Funding cuts have meant that there is a danger that organisations desperate to fill a funding gap just see consortia as another funder: I think the varied membership model is being discussed more, but unless it has a very small membership there is the question of how you quality assure different sector strengths within a larger structure.

Consortia should be about winning contracts for members: The benefits – stronger sector working, better business practice, capacity building and service delivery come out of a commitment to working together towards a financial gain. All other sorts of networks and partnerships are hugely valuable, but consortium working should be different.

Neil Coulson – owner of Neil Coulson Associates

Consortia should base membership on a set of eligibility criteria and thresholds: Most consortia I have worked with as a freelance consultant have full and associate members. Full members have demonstrated that they meet certain contract readiness criteria, just like they would if they were completing a PQQ, while associates are ‘not quite there yet’, but can make the transition to full membership.

One key factor of success is: The development process that consortia go through. Organisations need to come into this process with their eyes wide open to the challenges of consortium-working, as well as the potential benefits. I encourage collaborators to think carefully about what the business of the consortium will be and to plan what membership will look like.

Another critical success factor is: Getting the commissioners involved right from the outset. The commissioners in both areas have invested financially into their consortia, which is probably the best proxy indicator that the consortia will go on to win contracts, notwithstanding all the vagaries of the public procurement market. There has been a group of committed and forward-thinking individuals driving it forward, accountable to a wider VCS constituency.

William Lilley – enterprise manager at Accord Group

Sharing risk is certainly a positive feature of forming consortia: Especially in light of the increased size and scale of commissioning processes. Individually, organisations often do not have the economies of scale to manage risk.

Shared values has to be a pre-requisite of collaboration and partnership formation: It is the anchor which can steer relationships through good and bad times. For a partnership to weather long and painful commissioning cycles there has got to be more that unites them then merely winning contracts. It has to be one born out of the desire to achieve long lasting social outcomes. I definately believe that consortiums should not be formed purely for monetary gain, as this may lead to success but it inevitabley causes trouble later on.

Shani Lee – head of partnerships and commissioning at CaVSA

Benefits of forming a consortium include: Learning from each other, sharing resources and gaining additional funding. The main reason for setting up consortia locally was to bring money into the sector. If there is another strong voluntary sector organisation or partnership with a good chance of winning, we rarely go against it. We don’t see much point in displacing resources, and we are interested in maintaining and building a strong local sector.

It takes maturity to be a member of a succussful consortium: Not everyone is going to get everything straightaway, but over time if the sector is more wealthy, resilient and stable, then everyone will benefit. The development of consortia has the potential to be very liberating for the sector, to provide it with new roles and new channels for influencing how services are delivered.

Some of the downsides of being part of a consortium are that: It takes time and requires investment from partners, sometimes for a long time before seeing any returns; consortia are long-term solutions requiring a time frame of three to five years, rather than six months. Trust and building the consortia go hand in hand.

Pete Westmore – commissioner at West London Care Trust

One potential benefit of consortia work is protecting the identity of third sector organisations: Finding the balance between due process and demonstrating value whilst making sure we don’t turn third sector organisations into pseudo-statutory ones is tricky. Consortia infrastructure can take care of the paperwork and let organisations get on with what they do best. I guess one of the dangers is it can disempower organisations and move commissioners further away.

A consortium needs to demonstrate that it has the best offer on the table: It is important to quantify the value the Consortium brings and to make sure any perceived complications of working within a Consortium are outweighed by potential benefits. In the right circumstances Consortia can offer benefits that other models struggle to compete with in terms of quality and cost.

I think the requirements of commissioners filtered through a consortium to their members result in a better process for the member groups: If it works well the consortium can help their members improve their ability to demonstrate impact without turning them away from their values.

Nicky Wilkinson – development manager of Innovation in Giving

Invest time in building trust and understanding organisational culture: I think the key point is to have written clarity on what each partner is expected to do, by when and what the process is if this is not achieved. Provided the trust is there, bringing together partners with different perspectives, and indeed from different sectors can prove really valuable in innovating delivery.

Be clear on what it is the consortia is trying to achieve: So that you know what to aim for. Some of the most successful consortia that I’ve come across have come together initially on the basis of shared vision and values. They have then invested time understanding each partner’s work, culture and building trust before bidding for any funding or making any joint policy statements.

A good mix of partners can really add value: In my experience there can be a number of benefits – particularly in relation to complimentary offers for target groups and in relation to increasing scale and reach of programmes and avoiding duplication.

Monica Shafaq – chair of ACEVO’s Black & Asian leadership Special Interest Group

Trust is a major issue: It is vital that the collaboration is between partners who have a shared ethos and values. It helps if you have an understanding of how partners work and their culture.

Membership needs to be small: because it can become difficult to make decisions and progress if too many organisations are involved. It is important to be aware of the time commitment, especially if you are a small charity with limited resources.

Ian Curtis – director of collaboration benefits CIC

It is important to establish at the outset how you are going to conduct business: In particular, between the consortia member organisations. The issue you raise about how to select the right partners to consort to contract should already have been determined as part of your consortium development and at least be written down in a procedure or better still a contract. The way our sector works is often on trust but we are now having to behave in a ‘business like’ or more formal fashion becuse we are contracing and sub-contracting with all this brings.

Being part of a consortium means having an ‘increased chance of survival’: The main benefit that justifies the time and money organisations put into developing consortia can be bound up in a four words ‘increased chance of survival’ of our organisations and sector, our services and employment.

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