Recently, I’ve been thinking about how organisations share information within the Third Sector. As someone at the beginning of their career in the sector, I don’t have the networks, contacts and experience to know everyone and everything already and so I’ve been asking for help.
I have been researching and writing a report, which is something my organisation has not done much of before. This means I’ve been calling, e-mailing and visiting other organisations with more experience of the subject or research to find out what has already been done.
I’ve had a mixed response. Some people have ignored me; some have been helpful and happy to share; and others have been cagey – not wanting to share too much or give away their ‘secret’ plans. Even once I had spoken to lots of people and trawled the internet for reports, research and projects, new things still occasionally came out of the woodwork – I suddenly find that there is actually a big, cross-sector group working on the issue that nobody else seems to know about, or at least want to tell me about. I wish I had known earlier.
Sharing is itself valuable. In a sector where many organisations are working towards the same goals with stretched resources, there is little sense in doing the same work twice. Equally, sharing resources and plans would allow more organisations to collaborate to deliver big contracts together and would save money all-round. More importantly, by sharing as much knowledge and experience as possible, we can better achieve our charity’s goals and those of the third sector more broadly, which should always be our ultimate aim.
Why the hesitancy then? Charities are being encouraged to become more business-like; the financial environment is getting more difficult; and we’re having to ‘fight’ for contracts. This has made the Third Sector more competitive and sharing is not the natural partner of competition. Sharing requires openness, being able to admit failures and being willing to give information and knowledge freely. We need to acknowledge that these things are not always easy.
How then do we achieve them? The emphasis with sharing should be on everyone bringing something different to the table, but all with the same aims. If we can share skills and expertise on a mutually-beneficial basis (rather than a free, pro bono basis, as Bill Freeman argued through Leading Social), each organisation is forced to reflect on what makes it unique and what particular contribution it can make. This will allow everyone to bring their respective strengths to the cause.
Whilst this does happen in some areas, what is missing in my experience is a one-stop shop, a portal, or hub of sharing –somewhere anyone can go to to find out what has been done, what is being done and what is in the pipeline. There are some examples of this for certain areas, in particular the Third Sector Research Centre’s Third Sector Knowledge Portal which collects research across the sector and allows everyone to search the database.
What the sector needs, however, is something that goes beyond research, and allows for sharing with regards to other projects and initiatives being undertaken within charities and across the sector. This should include on-going and future work, not just things already in the public domain, as well as key contact details to help everyone connect. This must have the reach and profile to be visible and accessible to all, so that those that haven’t been working on something for the past 20 years can still get involved, catch up and build on what has already been done.
In order for this to be a success, and for sharing to become more widely accepted as the practice of choice, we need leadership. Leaders across the sector need to promote the value of sharing and managers must ensure they define their goals and their staff’s targets to capture the overall, big-picture aims of the charity’s area of work, rather than the narrow aims of short-term success.
Finally, it is up to all of us to take responsibility for being open and sharing in our own work and to reciprocate when someone helps us. We need to ask some difficult questions and give honest answers – are we the best people for the job and who could help us? Sharing can save frustration, duplicated work and wasted endeavours, but more importantly it can further all our aims of creating social change, thereby benefiting the Third Sector as a whole. Rather than ask ‘why share?’, we should start asking ‘why not share?’ We must look to exploit the numerous opportunities for collaboration around us, in order to create a truly sharing sector.