A tale of collaboration
In this blog, Sarah, our Operations Manager, reflects on the Centre’s relationship with Renaisi and what their support has meant to us over the years.
Alongside the existential crisis we faced at the start of lockdown, the team at the Centre, together with almost every other office-based worker in the UK, made the overnight move to home working. For us, this meant leaving our shared office space with Renaisi, with whom we’ve been co-located since April 2017… And not just leaving for a few months, but permanently. The decision to become a fully remote organisation was not made lightly, but with so much uncertainty (mostly financial) facing our small charity, it reluctantly and sadly seemed like the right way forward; an attempt to better secure our immediate future.
The end to this aspect of our relationship with Renaisi has compelled us to reflect on what their support has meant to us over the years, specifically on the Centre’s journey to organisational independence. I’m going to share some of those reflections here, for two reasons. First and foremost, to express our gratitude to Renaisi for everything that their support has meant to us. And secondly, to provide an honest account of our experiences in collaborating on space and back-office support, in the hope that sharing our learning may be of some help to others.
A bit of background
To facilitate the Centre’s formal move to London in 2017, we needed a safe and supportive space; an organisational partnership that would provide us with the stability and confidence to move away from our origins as a partnership initiative to a fully-fledged, independent registered charity. Renaisi’s accommodation and business support offer to the Centre was holistic and affordable, and initially included support on our finances, HR, IT infrastructure, office space and general operations. For us, this meant we could maintain focus on our existing projects whilst also building out our relationships and our fundraising pipeline. It also helped us to learn and grow, and by the time the Centre departed Renaisi in June 2020, they were providing us only with office space and some financial services because we had built the capacity to pick up the other functions internally.
Why this worked
Our relationship with Renaisi worked because it wasn’t just about space or business support. The connection between our organisations originated through a shared perspective on approaches to impact measurement and evaluation, which led to us partnering on various pieces of work over the years. This shared perspective evolved into an alignment of organisational values; we both really care about continuous learning and improvement, strong collaborations and challenging the status quo through our work, to name a few. I’d argue that a correlation of values like these is fundamental to making a business support model work. Vision and mission are important but sharing these with your ‘host’ or business support partner isn’t necessarily the key to your relationship being a success. In other words, you can both care about the ‘big picture’, but if your principles and culture don’t align, then it’s probably not going to work out.
The relationship also worked because it was formalised through several Board-level discussions and a signed service level agreement, as opposed to relying on good faith between our Chief Execs (which is where the relationship began). Both parties knew precisely what they were signing up for and more importantly, the parameters for holding each other accountable. I can understand how some organisations, even in 2020, enter into back-office support relationships without having done the proper due diligence and/or management of expectations. But this carries immeasurable risk; financially, legally, reputationally and emotionally – a breakdown in relations will inevitably take a toll on the wellbeing of the individuals involved, especially if it was a partnership built on camaraderie between senior leaders.
And lastly, the team at Renaisi embraced us as colleagues; inviting us to lunch and learns and to partake in various internal initiatives, rather than viewing us as tenants, occupying some desks in their office. This made a world of difference to how it felt, working in the office every day.
The challenges, and things to remember
As in every relationship, there are things that could be better. I can’t fault the quality of the support Renaisi has given the Centre, although I do think at times their business support team was stretched and understandably, this meant they had to prioritise the needs of their business over ours. I think this is probably inevitable though. If you enter into a back office support relationship like we did, where those providing the contracted services are employed by the host organisation, then it’s perhaps natural that they’re not going to be as invested in your mission or strategy as your own staff. The business support team at Renaisi already had their own organisation to look after (and one far larger and far more complex than the Centre) and their own Senior Leadership Team and Board to answer to – we couldn’t expect them to give precedence to us, although I know at times we did, to their reasonable frustration!
In the same vein, as the staff team at the Centre grew and took up more space, we became more demanding, particularly on what we wanted out of the physical office environment. There were other more mundane things that we went backwards and forwards with Renaisi on, but these were infrequent and always amicable.
Our relationship with Renaisi is only one version of a back office and space sharing model: a larger organisation taking a smaller organisation under its wing to provide stability and safety, with the end goal of the smaller org being able to stand on its own two feet. Well, we’re more than just standing on our own two feet: Renaisi’s support allowed us to soar. The robustness of our operational systems and processes has always been critical to us as a small charity (especially over the last few months), and we can’t thank Renaisi enough for the role they have played in helping us build them. The team’s generosity and professionalism has meant a great deal to us over the years and we hope that in sharing a bit about our experience, it will encourage other small social organisations to consider entering into this kind of collaboration. Perhaps it will also prompt larger charities and social enterprises to reflect on what they can offer to smaller organisations. It’s meant the world to us.
If you do decide to go down either of these roads or you have done so in the past, then please share your experiences – there’s so much to be learnt from honest accounts of collaboration. And if you’re looking to outsource some of your back office functions, but don’t know where to start, I recommend getting in touch with these folks.
We’d like to personally thank the following people for their friendship, patience, advice and guidance:
John Hitchin, Michael Toyer, Nick Larkins, Safe Wongsunopparat and Asiya Khan