Building Relationships One Step at a Time

SVA’s (Social Ventures Australia) recent article, Laying the Foundations for Collective Impact in Solving Unemployment in SVA Consulting Quarterly, looked at a six year $5 million plus project to address employment exclusion in Queensland and how it stacked up against the collective impact model. 

In the role of backbone organisation, we learnt a lot notably about ensuring continuous communication and building trusting relationships with and between other organisations –and just how much time this takes.

As Paul Schmitz pointed out in his article The Real Challenge for Collective Impact, (flagged on this blog), “the process by which leaders from different organizations, sectors, and levels of influence come together for Collective Impact is incredibly important and should not be rushed”.

Based on collaboration between a diverse mix of corporate and government organizations, the project supported 57 social enterprises to provide jobs for people seriously disadvantaged in the workforce. While it started small, at its zenith it involved seven government bodies (either as funders and/or sources of procurement contracts), numerous corporates providing pro bono expertise and the social enterprises themselves.

We facilitated communication and built trust between the parties by:

1. Being consistent and regular in our communication.

In the earlier phases of the project, we met with key government stakeholders one on one regularly (either fortnightly or monthly) – usually in person. This gave us the opportunity to flag any emerging issues or opportunities early on. This regular communication continued and intensified when there were changes in personnel.

2. Delivering on what we said we’d do.

SVA was a newcomer to the social enterprise development in Queensland and had to prove itself. As we began to get social enterprises up and running using our investment plus support model for social enterprise development, our reputation grew.

For example, part of the process involves the social enterprises pitching about their business to a commerce panel, a cross-section of experts relevant to that social enterprises who provide advice and/or recommendations for the social enterprises to grow and get investment ready. We found that involving government stakeholders in these panels not only gave them the opportunity to contribute from their areas of strength but also gave them  understanding of the breadth of SVA’s networks and the depth of due diligence undertaken. This grew confidence in the process, in what we did in accessing and facilitating these networks and in the social enterprises. (See SVA Consulting's report Solving Employment Exclusion Using Social Enterprises for more on this model of development.)

3. Identifying and nurturing the champions in the organizations.

Having champions in the funding bodies and in the procurement departments was critical. We supported these champions where we could and nurtured relationships with and between them. 

It was the champions who helped to bring government bodies to the same table so that funding for different disadvantaged groups could be managed in the one project. The result was that one social enterprise could receive funding from four sources all facilitated by SVA. The other area where this was critical was for the social procurement contracts, intended to be the commercial mainstay for the social enterprises.  Having a champion in the purchasing organization and successful case studies  helped with education  and to cut through the bureaucratic red-tape. The story of BARK social enterprise, which provides employment for Indigenous men, exemplifies this. The champion on the local council was a major driver behind the three year contract on which BARK’s initial funding depended. 

4. Using different modalities for facilitating the relationships: meetings, presentations by the SEs, ‘market days,’ commerce panels.

The ways we interacted with, and brokered relationships between, the other organisations was also diverse. We invited social enterprises to presentations to funding bodies to tell the success stories; we organised ‘market days’ where social enterprises could show their wares to procurement departments; and in the project’s earlier days we facilitated networking and skill development events for the social enterprises.

The greatest challenge in the project was social procurement. Firstly we had to get government departments or companies on board with the IDEA of it. This took a lot of education. Even if the organization supported it in principle that didn’t necessarily translate into action by the procurement department. And when it did, the challenge was matching the supply and demand. 

We found that we needed to play relationship-builder or broker between the buyer and the social enterprise to help match their needs. Even where an organization puts out a tender with social outcomes, the size and scope of the tender may be beyond the capacity of social enterprises to deliver and so it sets both sides up to fail. There’s still a long way to go on this issue, but that’s another story.

In the end we found that it all came back to delivering on what we said we’d do, growing social enterprises to provide jobs for the people who normally don’t get a chance.

There’s simply a lot of relationship building to make that happen. 

About Social Ventures Australia – Social Ventures Australia (SVA) was established in 2002 as an independent non-profit organization. We invest in social change by helping increase the impact and build the sustainability of those in the social sector. SVA’s investments are focused on high potential organizations that are fostering solutions to some of the most pressing challenges facing our community. We provide funding and strategic support to carefully selected non-profit partners, as well as offering consulting services to the social sector more broadly through SVA Consulting. We help create customized, results-driven solutions including strategy development, program design and review, board development programs and organizational and program evaluation including Social Return on Investment (SROI).

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