04 Aug 8 things I’ve learnt from West London Zone
By Emily Barran, Partnerships Manager
A while ago a friend sent me a fantastic blog (with a terrible title) about collective impact – ‘The 8 Yummy Tensions of Collective Impact’. The first ’tension’ was – ‘collective impact is having the humility to admit you don’t have all the answers, but the hubris to try anyway’. This produced wry smiles in the office – at WLZ over the last few years we have constantly walked this tightrope and I particularly have walked it with many of our stakeholders given my role as Partnerships Manager. We have a big ambition and everything we have done has been designed from scratch; we have learnt from others where we can, but have inevitably found ourselves working without a clear roadmap at times. A partnership model without a clear roadmap requires more humility that if you are doing something on your own and the very factor of working closely with so many expert organisations has enabled us to develop a vibrant ‘learning culture’ – constantly creating, testing, reflecting and refining. There are a few things which I will take with me as I leave my role as partnerships manager of West London Zone – some philosophical, some practical but all have held true time and time again:
- Multiple parties coming from different directions can solve most problems if they stay focussed on the common goal. Our partners are hugely diverse – from tutoring to circus skills – but we all share a desire and mission to improve lives for children and young people. Whenever we have faced a challenge we have normally been able to solve it by going back to what brought us together in the first place.
- If you want to do something really difficult, you have to a) work really hard, b) not try and do anything else. Whilst the opportunity to work in a co-ordinated way in schools was part of what attracted our partners to WLZ in the first place, we have all found it very challenging and have had our persistence tested to the full. Because we had no other option, we put a huge amount of work and effort into getting the partnership between multiple charities and schools right. But it has also meant we have had to stay very focused on the task in hand. This means we have not yet developed a partnership of charities to support young people after they have left school.
- Always be honest and be consistent in communications with all partners; and when all else fails – be honest. It seems everyone who read our Pilot Review had the same reaction – ‘wow, it’s very honest’. I have always kept honesty at the core of my communications with our partners and been proud of that. Even when it might have been detrimental in the short term, in the long term it has led to credibility and strong working relationships built on trust.
- Nothing beats experience, but enthusiasm is a great substitute (for a bit). When I was first given the opportunity to work with and grow the WLZ partnership I didn’t exactly have years of experience or expertise. But I was about as enthusiastic as it was possible to be about WLZ and what a partnership like ours could achieve. Thanks to some forgiving colleagues (both internally and externally) I was given the space to learn and over time temper some of my naiveté. I’m grateful to all our partners who have been on my journey as WLZ’s first partnerships manager with me.
- Don’t forget about the output data. We get asked a lot by other organisations in the sector about outcome measurement. That is important, but in my opinion one of our partnerships’ greatest uses of data is how we make use of output data on a day to day basis (i.e. the record of each child’s attendance at sessions). It allows us to try and make sure that no partner session is wasted and our children get as much support as possible. Our Senior Data Analyst’s understanding of how much work and detail was required to execute real time data sharing across 12 organisations simultaneously was critical in developing our system to track this.
- Never give up (or consistency, consistency, consistency). Our long-term model (two years support for each child) has created a mindset shift in families, partners and schools which I don’t think any of us anticipated. We have time to work with our partners to make sure that the right children get the right support at the right time for them and that the sessions are tailored for every child so that as they develop, we can develop with them. Our children know we will stick with them, adapting our support as they grow and build their strengths and that is really powerful.
- There are no shortcuts in building strong relationships that properly sustain a demanding partnership. One of the parts of our model that our partners have had to be most flexible about is that we work with partners based on the actual needs of the children, once they are identified. Sometimes the risk factor analysis throws a curveball and we suddenly need extra maths support (we always need more primary maths!). Occasionally I have rung a potential partner late on a Friday night and said (trying not to plead) ‘Any chance you have capacity for some delivery in West London, err, in the next few weeks?’ I am so grateful to those organisations that were able to be very responsive. But there is no substitute for long term relationship building – several meetings to get to know each other, explore our mutual strengths and weaknesses and ensure a good fit.
With a host of new schools joining this year, WLZ is entering its first major growth phase, which is the best and the worst time to leave. I am incredibly proud of what the partnership has achieved over the last couple of years and I can’t wait to see what happens as WLZ grows, even if I am now watching from the sidelines.