Conditions for Collaboration — Part 2: the role of shared infrastructure

Nick Stanhope
Oct 6 · 8 min read

Generous leadership and collaboration are powerful values for civil society, especially in these times, when the impact of the Covid-19 crisis has been felt so unequally. But these intentions are only as good as the shared infrastructure they need to thrive.

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In the first part of this short series of blogs on collaboration for TNLCF Digital Fund, we explored why, as the support partners set out to encourage generous leadership amongst grantees and help them to build digital capabilities within and beyond their organisations, truly collaborative behaviours are so tough.

The next two parts, one from me and one in conversation with Digital Fund Portfolio Officer Phoebe Tickell, take different but complementary approaches to how we can overcome these challenges and foster more and better collaboration across different organisations, drawing on what we have learnt during the first year of the Digital Fund.

This piece explores the wider infrastructure required to translate intentions of generous leadership into successful collaboration.

Three examples of shared infrastructure that can supercharge successful collaboration

1. Shared, evolving views of what is going on

A number of Digital Fund grantees are strongly motivated to work effectively with and alongside others that share their goal. But this is made so much harder without shared, up-to-date views of the communities and systems in which they operate.

For example, The Children’s Society is embarking on ambitions that are, by design, far greater than their own capacity and capabilities. This requires, also by design, that they actively connect and strengthen the networks, fields and ecosystems in which they operate in order to achieve these goals. This is the very definition of generous and, for me, admirably humble leadership (i.e. without that common pretence that transformational change can be achieved by one organisation).

The organisation’s Digital Fund work has, amongst other things, helped accelerate their collaborative learning, as well as lay stronger foundations in design thinking and practice — both of which will make important contributions to these collective ambitions.

However, the potential for this kind of generous leadership is as reliant on the available infrastructure as it is on the ambitions and capabilities of individual organisations, however influential. And a common gap in this shared infrastructure is collective intelligence, such as:

  • up-to-date, people centred views of the many different (and often rapidly changing) experiences, priorities and aspirations of children and young people across the UK
  • an inclusive picture of who is playing what role in influencing and providing for these preferences and needs;
  • a growing shared understanding of what practices, relationships and services are working for whom and in what context

This kind of rich collective intelligence can supercharge collaboration. It can root collaboration in:

  • holistic, representative views of young people experiences that tends to be missing from the narrow, snapshot user research that individual actors are limited to
  • more eclectic, diverse and multi-sector picture of existing and potential roles and force more representation of under-represented groups
  • more humility, as actors see themselves through a collective lens at what they really bring and what value they truly add
  • stronger relationships and shared value (e.g. community researcher experience and income, shared ownership of data) with people and communities, by generating this deeper understanding equitably with children and young people themselves

2. Shared design, tech and data infrastructure

There are a number of examples across the Digital Fund cohort of where efforts to design and improve services and experiences are, by default, approached independently, when they would be much better approached collaboratively. This isn’t a criticism. This is the normal approach because it is very difficult to embark on this collaboratively. The infrastructure just doesn’t exist.

Over the last 6 months the demand for support from helplines across the UK has skyrocketed, as those experiencing crisis have multiplied and access to face-to-face support has been removed or significantly reduced. Parentline, provided by Children 1st, is one of those services and has Digital Fund support to transform the service, which currently helps around 2,500 parents and carers a year with a wide range of issues.

Through the Digital Fund, the Parentline team is embarking on a series of intensive learning and design activities, such as:

  • Understanding which groups of parents and types of needs they are currently addressing as well as the needs, priorities and preferences for remote support across Scottish families and how those needs are currently met by existing services
  • Iterating the user experience for different user groups, via different combinations of remote support, and adding new experiences and content
  • Refining the training and support model for volunteers and staff (who, during the crisis have played a much bigger role in responding to growing need)
  • Improving the data infrastructure, increasing the quality and quantity of data collected and enabling more learning and improvement based via this better data

Parentline is currently one of at least 60 sources of helpline support for parents in the UK, targeting different combinations of audience (e.g. single parents, kinship carers), need (e.g. legal, financial, mental health) and forms of remote, personal support (e.g. phone, web chat, text). And our light review of existing services (which you can see here), doesn’t include the hundreds of other sources of relevant support that are available to these same families but which wouldn’t target them as parents, but via different issues, needs or contexts.

We haven’t worked through anything like comprehensive testing of these services, but any time spent within this landscape leads to two obvious conclusions:

  1. The vast majority of these remote support services share a set of common patterns, features and components
  2. Most of these services would benefit from investment in some or all of the above activities to improve understanding of needs, user experience, data infrastructure etc (I’ve had my own personal experiences of accessing underdeveloped helplines)

From this wider view, anything but a collaborative approach looks bonkers. But, the infrastructure that would support this collaboration is patchy or non-existent and it would be incredibly difficult for individual actors — or even small clusters — to build and maintain this infrastructure themselves.

Examples of shared design, tech and data infrastructure that would transform the collaboratively capacity of all the services would include:

  • Shared platforms and tools — there is a landscape of off-the-shelf commercial products for helpline and helpdesk services, which represent potential benefits, but also significant risks for nonprofit actors (and we’ve experienced some horrendous commercial behaviours). Plus, their intention is to maintain each client as an independent paying customer, not foster collaboration or harness their collective potential. The fit-for-purpose nonprofit landscape feels very underdeveloped (not to dismiss services like iCarol and ICARIS) and with 100s of like-minded actors, this feels like a massive missed opportunity.
  • Shared service patterns — these are open, practical guidelines for services based on common interactions and tasks, that help build shared practice, raise shared standards and surface opportunities for further shared infrastructure. Snook and Futuregov have been working away at these for a while and now Catalyst is scaling them up, but there are still huge gaps.
  • Shared training and practice buildingHelplines Partnership demonstrate the potential of a networked approach, making training, advice and support available for UK helplines. But (said humbly and without enough direct experience), it feels that this is scratching the surface of what could be achieved collectively and would benefit from a big injection of support to modernise, grow and build a more interdependent ecosystem of helplines across the UK.

3. Shared relational and interdependent ways of working

The physical and digital infrastructure described above is important, but “build it and they will collaborate” is a myth. No amount of service pattern libraries or data platforms will, by themselves, foster more generous leadership or effective collaboration. There needs to be just as much thought and investment in our shared ways of working — the norms, behaviours and protocols that guide how we all work together towards social change and progress.

We’ll build on this in further parts of this mini-series, but here is one example of the kind of shared ways of working that I feel are just as powerful as forms of generous leadership than the more obvious ones.

Using open stuff & coming in behind others

Civil society talks a lot about making things open and doing things in the open and these behaviours are lauded as forms of generous leadership. This is a good instinct, of course, and one shared by many Digital Fund grantees.

I would say that the latter half of that equation, which looks first to see what others are doing and thinks how to reinforce it, is badly underdeveloped.

A striking example of this can be seen in the review of 50 digital maturity frameworks by Innovation Unboxed, Think Social Tech, and CAST. As the review concludes, amongst this vast range of frameworks is little shared vision, an almost non-existent evidence-base, poorly defined milestones and competing language and concepts that adds up to a landscape that, at worst, “risks setting unfair standards and sending charities down a path that’s unhelpful.” (Shift kind of contributed to this littered landscape, so this picture is painted with much humility!)

As the review also makes clear, there is a huge amount of value contained within these tools, models and frameworks.

Why is this?

Well, the more cynical answer is that some of this openness is another symptom of a competitive instinct, rather than genuine generosity. It seeks to prove differentiation, claim territory and make progress in a phoney war for the cleverest ideas and the consultancy gigs, funding and commissioning that follows them.

A more hopeful answer would be that the ways in which civil society works together towards shared goals is underdeveloped and just needs more attention and investment. We have spent too long addicted to the idea of magical single solutions and ever growing individual organisations, but the limits of that are more apparent than ever in the face of crises like Covid-19 and accelerating climate change. Now, the movement for a more relational and interdependent civil society that is radically more representative and diverse is growing and that energy will only grow.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community…

Nick Stanhope

Written by

Founder of Shift, a London and New Orleans based social enterprise that designs products, builds ventures and helps change systems.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund team.

Nick Stanhope

Written by

Founder of Shift, a London and New Orleans based social enterprise that designs products, builds ventures and helps change systems.

The Digital Fund

Learning & Insight from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Digital Fund team.

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