South Western Federation of Museums and Art Galleries

7 things we learnt about partnership working at the SWFed Conference


The 2017 SWFed Conference was themed on ‘Partnerships in Practise’ and saw an array of speakers give inspiring and useful talks about topics surrounding partnership working in the heritage sector (and beyond). Here are just a few nuggets of information that we learnt:

Partnership working is about adding value.

During the keynote speech from Dr Mike Heyworth MBE (Council for British Archaeology), we heard about the opportunities that partnerships create. One particular statement carried through the whole of the conference: “By working together, we get something that is greater than the parts”. If partnerships add value, there is a huge opportunity to deliver the best projects and see the greatest outcomes for people.

In a case study by Michael Spender (Wessex Museums Partnership), we learnt that added value can include programming power, more fundraising opportunities, strength in numbers, and staff sharing skills and capacity. The Fit for the Future Network demonstrated that partnerships can help reduce costs through knowledge and information sharing. Isobel Hunter (The National Archives) went on to state that: “partnerships are essential as they provide the platform and collective brain to tackle the big problems”.

Partner with those who share your vision.

When you are looking to collaborate with other people and organisations, it’s important to have your vision in mind. You need to make sure you find others who have a similar vision because those will be the people you can collaborate with best. Curiosity is a good starting point in developing a relationship, and you should be able to excite each other and share ideas. In Julie Hutchinson’s (Transforming Performance) talk ‘So what’s in it for me?’ she explained that if you give an idea away for free, it doesn’t mean you are worse off – you get ideas back. It’s the first step in making collaboration work.

swfed conference exeter 2017

Be clear about ‘why’ a partnership is needed.

Camilla Hampshire (University of Exeter) explained that your organisation needs to be able to concisely lay out the benefits of each partnership, whether that’s in discussions with potential partners, or for your staff and volunteers to understand why existing partnerships are important. At the same time, you have to understand why your potential partner will want to become a partner – what would they be looking to achieve from it? For partnerships to be successful, they have to work both ways.

Trust and transparency is key.

Trust and establishing agreed values is an important ingredient of successful partnerships. This emerged as a key theme across most speakers at the conference. Time and space is needed to develop a partnership in an atmosphere of mutual trust. Although a partnership agreement seems formal, it provides essential clarity and transparency. However, partnerships can be informal collaborations too (as long as all parties are happy with the arrangement). Organisations need to be confident and clear about the resources, skills and expertise they bring to the partnership. Jill Shonk (Gloucestershire Archives) went on to say that the risks of structural, budget and staff changes on the partnership need to be considered in advance.

Bust the jargon!

When working with different sectors such as health and wellbeing, make sure that you use language in a way that partners and potential partners will understand.

Collective willingness to overcome issues is vital in any partnership.

Partnerships will inevitably create challenges, which can either be identified at the start, or could catch you unaware in the middle of a project. Challenges may include divergent priorities between partners, time to manage the partnership (not just the project), varying staff capacity and skillsets between partner organisations, and the need for great project management.

Build an excited relationship.

A partnership is more than a transaction, so you need to invest in the relationship. You need to make sure all partners have similar levels of excitement before going into the partnership – it will help the partnership thrive.

We hope to hear more stories of great partnership working across the South West – if you have your own nuggets of information about the topic, let us know by tweeting @SWFed

A big thank you to all speakers, workshop facilitators, and our hosts The University of Exeter for a fantastic conference. Look out for news on the 2018 SWFed Conference in the coming months!

Thank you to the following conference sponsors for your generosity and helping to make the SWFed Conference a success!

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