Resource sharing between not-for-profit organisations is often seen as a response to insufficient resources and increasing client and operational demands. In particular, small community service organisations may consider resource sharing to address threats to their viability.
However, resource sharing between agencies can generate a range of positive benefits, including increased organisational efficiency and effectiveness. Complex community challenges and issues can often be resolved by sharing costs and risks, and focussing on a shared resolution.
Applying the principles and tools of effective collaboration to the practical, operational aspects of service delivery may do more than ensure the future viability of organisations; it may be the point of difference of successful organisations in the future.
Resource sharing can take many forms and generally occurs between organisations that maintain their separate legal and distinctive identities.
The community services sector has a long history of collaboration through sharing resources, particularly its intellectual, knowledge, strategic and policy resources. There are successful examples of resource sharing across the full range of operational and governance resources required by community service organisations.
Models of resource sharing
Resource sharing of infrastructure involves sharing a common provider or system and can include:
- motor vehicles
- corporate services that are difficult for small organisations to afford, such as finance and accounting and payroll
- marketing, communication and fundraising
- procurement or contract management services
- administration and service reception functions
- sharing office equipment, training and meeting facilities is also possible for organisations that are co-located in the one facility or complex.
Information and knowledge management
Shared information technology and business systems have been set up in regional communities and among clusters of small agencies in other localities. Examples include shared development and management of client or member databases, websites, e-commerce facilities, specialised resource libraries and IT support functions. Sharing databases that hold information about clients and/or members requires precautions to be in place to protect the privacy of individuals and ensure those affected consent to their details being shared.
Sharing staff across separate programs and organisations is one strategy to strengthen recruitment and retention capacity. This is because it often enables organisations to offer full-time hours across a number of small programs. This may be particularly useful in rural and regional locations and in attracting candidates with specialised skills such as psychologists, counsellors and other health professionals. It may also assist organisations and individuals to manage risk across a number of short-term projects. When considering this option, it is important to clearly define the line management responsibilities and staff accountability requirements.
Service delivery infrastructure
Initiatives between agencies for more streamlined or integrated client service delivery processes can open up a range of opportunities for sharing systems and processes such as client assessment and case management systems. This has the potential to improve client experiences of service access, provide seamless pathways and minimise overlaps between services. A more efficient and cost-effective service delivery process and operational cost structure can free up new resources, including management and administration time, to improve client service quality and quantity.
Governance and professional development support
The challenge of providing ongoing development support for management committees and staff is faced by all community service organisations. It is particularly acute for rural and regional services where local support, expertise and training infrastructure may be limited or where demand is spread over wide geographic areas. Successful resource-sharing models that demonstrate the benefits of resource sharing to support staff and management committees have been piloted through the Queensland Department of Communities and Disability Services Queensland's Building Links funding initiative. The department's introduction of Standards for Community Services and Disability Service Standards raises opportunities for smaller community organisations within a locality to consider collaborating to procure quality system support such a policy development, training and shared quality management personnel.
Various models of co-location and shared resources have evolved to respond to local community needs and circumstances. Partnerships between local government and NGO community services have evolved hybrid forms of co-location and resource sharing from multi-service outlets.
There is a range of potential benefits of co-location and its related resource sharing. Larger benefits are more likely to be realised and costs minimised with appropriate planning, assessment, explicit agreement making and ongoing review processes. However, practical constraints need to be considered and managed in relation to co-location.
The potential benefits of co-location and sharing resources include the following:
- a multi-tenant facility can provide an opportunity for a highly visible profile and a unified presence within a community
- a better quality facility and accessible location can be established than could be afforded by individual co-tenants
- a well-resourced facility with shared office infrastructure can be accessed that otherwise would be unaffordable for individual tenants, for example access to meeting and training facilities, car parking
- cost savings can be gained in areas such as utilities and other building and service supports, for example cleaning, gardening, building and computer maintenance
- improved customer service can be gained from external service providers responding to larger purchasing power
- increased informal peer support opportunities can occur through sharing work environments
- greater flexibility for purchasing capital or investment in upgrading can occur because of shared contributions, shared use and shared risk
- opportunities occur for sharing new resources and technologies as they arise. A well-functioning co-location arrangement can foster new ideas and resource-sharing opportunities. For example, access to technology and equipment that has high benefits but low usage, such as expensive data projection equipment can be cost-effective if shared across a number of user groups.
There are a number of key challenges of co-location and resource sharing. Critical success factors in the not-for-profit sector are likely to mirror those documented in the private and government sectors:
- deciding which services to share
- leadership and good governance arrangements
- supporting and managing people
- finding a balance between change processes and time frames and the effects of change
- maintaining service quality through the transition
- adapting to changed client profiles or demand
- building a new culture
- managing and monitoring costs
- maintaining accountability and performance management, and
- maintaining the agreements.
An emphasis on relationship (trust, communication) and cultural fit factors (shared vision, values and service culture) are also likely to be highlighted in the not-for-profit sector. Organisations need to be confident of their ability to work constructively with others in an open and flexible manner. Careful negotiation and establishing clear agreements prior to commencement is critical.
The costs of change, such as new logos, floor plan re-organisation and social and psychological impacts on staff, can also be a challenge to organisations considering co-location and resource sharing.
Resource sharing, particularly co-location arrangements, can be time intensive to establish, and require reserves of cash and capital as well as extensive staff management time. There may also be a time lag in realising the benefits. When benefits are realised, they may not be obvious to stakeholders, unless clear cost analysis and careful monitoring are maintained.
The greatest barrier to the take-up of co-location and resource sharing initiatives for many organisations may be the lack of a strong driver for organisations to take the initiative and prioritise this activity over other demands. Unless an organisation is facing serious viability issues, other client and service management issues may take priority.
Working with others to achieve agreed sharing of resources can deliver a range of the benefits of collaboration for organisations, their staff and clients, and it is important resource sharing is seen as a means to provide clients high-quality and sustainable services.
Detailed assessment and careful planning are needed prior to starting co-location or major resource sharing agreements and to ensure actual financial and operational benefits are identified. Small, planned steps that can demonstrate success will build confidence that resource sharing can be a means to building a network of more effective non-government community service organisations. Building an effective evaluation and learning system about what works and what doesn't work will help to build a collaborative culture within an organisation and within the wider community service sector.
Ipswich collaboration yields accredited training for disability workers
Focal Extended Inc. coordinated a group of Ipswich and district agencies to collaborate to secure funding and deliver training to front-line disability support workers. Existing collaborative relationships and the development of a formal Memorandum of Understanding documenting the commitments and understandings of agencies underpinned the venture. The collaborative, rather than competitive, approach was supported by the training funding body and more flexible arrangements were agreed. The network is now considering formal collaborative arrangements to enhance their collective quality and effectiveness in other areas of client service delivery.
Mackay Regional Council for Social Development Community Mentoring Alliance Project
This project is developing a mentoring model to support management committees across a significant geographic area to improve the recruitment, learning, support and retention of committee members. Agencies are matched with mentors who can provide advice and problem-solving support to resolve governance questions or issues. Local training delivery is also provided and organised around the needs and constraints of committee members.
Roma and District Community Support Association
Roma and District Community Support Association (Roma Neighbourhood Centre) is a multi-service outlet offering 10 programs to the local and regional community. As well as co-locating a range of services, service management and governance structures are integrated. The Roma Town Council is the legal entity which is supported by a management committee comprising Council, community, service management and consumer representatives. The model has successfully developed a structure which is stable, accountable, and responsive to community and service user needs. The integrated governance model efficiently draws on the governance resources within the community to promote long-term sustainability. While the legal governance structure is not that of an NGO, the model has retained a number of the characteristics of NGO community service organisations. The model has been established for 27 years and has provided support to a range of new and short-term initiatives.