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Realities Behind the Rhetoric

Date added

05 February 2016


Ros Tennyson outlines a new case study which puts the day-to-day reality of the operational side of Start Network under a microscope.

Realities Behind the Rhetoric

"In 2013 we began the process of collating the story of an emerging consortium – what is now the Start Network. The purpose was to record the journey of evolution of an organisation reconfiguring itself with a bold collaborative agenda, and a mission to change the way the humanitarian sector functions. This collation of stories, data, pictures, processes and multiple perspectives has taken its form in three case studies. The first case study, Dealing with Paradox, tracks the organisations foundation, through a funding crisis, and to the point of a re-branding and re-building to become an international, collaborative network focused on doing business differently. The second study, Power & Politics, picks up the story a year later. Following it through funding success and subsequent growth (personnel, members, programmes) the case study looks at the challenges of this scaling up, to a collaborative organisations brand, intent, and member and donor engagement.

In this, the third case study in the sequence, we have tried to provide a vehicle for people to speak about Start Network from their individual positions and day-to-day experiences – whether in the form of ‘think pieces’ (the more formal contributions) or in selected quotes (from log-books, blogs and interviews). The intention is to hear the many different voices and views at the heart of the delivery of Start (the staff team) as well as those on the operational fringes but on the experimental front line (the advisors). This case study has been written collectively – all we have done (apart from designing the methodology, assigning tasks and forcing the pace as deadlines approached) is to try and provide a framework and a connecting narrative to make it accessible and useful to others working to make multi-stakeholder consortia, coalitions or networks effective.

In this case study we have intentionally not sought the views of either the membership or of the donors. Not because they are not important – they are central and critical as the earlier case studies made abundantly clear – but we felt that the time was right to explore a different perspective. The day-to-day reality of managing a collaborative model is an area that is generally under-researched and rarely exposed. An exploration of the operational part of Start Network offers a unique opportunity to put those realities under a microscope for the benefit of others aspiring to innovate and reach scale through a collaborative model.

We have clustered the materials under three key headings:

Managing the (almost) unmanageable
Triumphs and transaction costs
Holding onto the vision

What this case study quickly reveals is a reality that is both complicated and complex. There is a phenomenal amount being done against a backdrop of constant pushes and pulls that make systematic delivery a growing challenge (leading to long hours, sleepless nights and, sometimes, short fuses). The achievements are remarkable but the (human) costs are, for several, on the edge of unbearable.

Despite this tension, no-one in the Start Team or in the Advisory Group feel anything less than rampant enthusiasm for the vision and ambition of Start Network – nothing less than to challenge and change the very foundations of the humanitarian imperative. It is a mark of this deep passion and commitment that some staff were writing their contributions to the case study long after midnight during ‘mini mega week’ and advisors were sending in their think pieces whilst working on the front line in the very contexts that Start Network is most determined to reach as the deadline we had set for submissions closed in.

Start Network is designed to challenge and change humanitarian practice and systems – needing to be innovative and experimental to achieve this whilst also ensuring coherence, continuity and compliance. This is, in itself, hugely challenging and demands a willingness to be self-critical and to challenge the assumptions and behaviours in all those involved.

It continues to be a real privilege for the Partnership Brokers Association to be accompanying Start Network on this extraordinary journey and doing what we can to help navigate the terrain without a route-map. On this, our third case study, we have been humbled and impressed by the dedication, imagination and sheer persistence of the staff team. They have exceeded our expectations of what they would be able to produce in the midst of their madly busy days – both in terms of quantity and quality.

It would be remiss of us not to acknowledge the enthusiastic support of Start’s Director, Sean Lowrie, for this work. There can be few anywhere in the world leading innovative initiatives of this kind who are as passionate as Sean and who are equally willing to give a completely free hand to those coming to scrutinise in the name of enquiry. It takes some courage and, probably, some hard swallowing as he reads the text for the first time, but there will be many within and beyond the team and the membership who see this as further testimony to his courageous and bold commitment to making the world a better place.

Last but not least, I take full responsibility for the final product – having had the challenging task of editing a large amount of material and deciding how to shape the case study to best capture the story. In both the data collection and the editing, I have been assisted by my colleague, Emily Wood who, when we were working together on the first case study (‘Dealing with Paradox’, 2013), made the insightful deduction that the Start Team (then just three people) were both ‘warriors’ and ‘worriers’ which still seems like a great summary of what it takes to run the Start Network.

Ros Tennyson is Development Director: Strategy & Services, Partnership Brokers Association and Collaboration Advisor to Start Network.

Realities Behind the Rhetoric