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Studying and doing partnership: A collaborative GMCVO research study

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Susanne and Andrew

Image: Susanne Martikke and Andrew Church

Susanne Martikke from the Greater Manchester Community Voluntary Organisation and UK Community Partner Network Associate tells us about a recent research project she worked on investigating community-university partnerships.

In 2013 GMCVO entered a research collaboration with Andrew Church and Angie Hart, two academics of the University of Brighton. The project was part of a larger study – ‘Imagine’ – funded by the Economic and Social and the Arts and Humanities Research Councils. The subject of the research study was community university partnerships (CUPs), with a specific focus on VCS (Voluntary and Community Sector) organisations’ role in these.  

We were in the interesting position of studying 23 cases of CUP working across the UK, and at the same time also observing our own behaviour in our CUP with the University of Brighton.

In our study of other CUPs we were interested in finding out how they navigate the challenging territory of partnership work between organisations with different cultures, resource levels and capacity. Similarly to most of our existing and previous CUPs we were introduced to each other through personal contacts and partnering on this research study was motivated by shared values and the promise of mutual benefit. Both sides felt passionate about securing a better deal and more recognition for the contribution of VCS partners to CUPs. In addition, Angie and Andrew were interested in getting a community partner perspective on CUP working – something that is virtually absent from the academic literature on the subject. GMCVO wanted to know whether CUP working represents a potential opportunity for the voluntary sector in Greater Manchester.

Our CUP experience shows the importance of proper resourcing for community partners. Although GMCVO saw the project as beneficial for itself and its members, we were only able to become involved in the collaboration because Angie and Andrew had secured funding for our input - an amount which seemed entirely reasonable at the time of making the decision to get involved.

Most of our research participants commented on the sheer unpredictability of research CUPs and this is something that we experienced. Never having worked together, it is very difficult to reach a shared understanding of what needs to be done and how respective levels of expertise contribute to reaching that aim. Therefore, although GMCVO have a track record in conducting qualitative research, they were unfamiliar with the time and resource demands of research that operated within university constraints for rigour. This led to an underestimate of how much time was needed to deliver the project.  

Personal leadership was necessary on both sides to ensure that the work could still be completed, although the officially allocated time had run out. Angie had to explain to her academic colleagues from the Imagine project and the funder that despite the delay, results were still worth waiting for and that there were reasonable explanations for the delay. On the GMCVO side, staff involved with the project had to articulate clearly the potential benefits for GMCVO of completing the project and the concomitant damage of leaving it unfinished. In both these cases, framing what was happening as a learning experience and highlighting the associated benefits with that learning helped our efforts. 

Leadership in reframing obstacles as learning experiences and explaining the benefits of working together was also identified as one of the most important ingredients of successful CUPs in our study. At a very basic level, a CUP is a partnership between individuals and is very dependent on good personal relations between the people involved. However, where there is organisational ownership beyond the individuals immediately involved, this is a source of strength, legitimacy and continuity for the CUP and means that its benefits can be shared across the organization and beyond, rather than only accruing to those immediately involved in the work.  

We also experienced first-hand the fact that CUP working is both more time-intensive and more rewarding than going it alone. Through co-production we think that we have achieved better research and, most importantly, different research than would have been possible had we done this project in our own respective ways. We have also challenged each other’s assumptions and have experienced how CUP working is a continuous learning experience.  

What are your experiences of community-university partnerships? Do you have any lessons learnt or top tips you could share?

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