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Blog: Understanding our different worlds for better third sector and academia collaborations

In this blog, Jane Marryat, Research and Communications Officer at ESS, shares her thoughts from ‘Let’s collaborate for impact’

As I was standing at the bus stop following the third Scottish Third Sector Research Forum (TSRF) event, ‘Let’s collaborate for impact’ on 13 September 2016, my mind was whirling with thoughts about the different worlds we work in, and how this effects collaboration. The words of Dr Cassy Rutherford (The Robertson Trust) and Dr Peter Matthews (University of Stirling) were ringing in my ears…

“Don’t give up – it’s a marathon not a sprint!” Cassy Rutherford

“…social scientists and policy makers live in separate worlds with different and often conflicting values, different reward systems and different languages” Caplan, (1979) cited by Peter Matthews

I’ll explain shortly but first perhaps I should set the scene.  Let’s collaborate for impact organised by Evaluation Support Scotland, as secretariat of the Third Sector Research Forum, brought together academics and third sector organisations to talk about collaborating for impact.  The day included presentations, breakout sessions and discussions enabled by well-designed activities. See programme for more detail.

After two previous, increasingly successful, TSRF events about third sector and academia collaboration I may have been tempted to ask, what more is there to say?  How wrong I would be! Indeed, since last year’s event the conversation has got impressively deeper with many more examples to talk about. I certainly heard new messages and came away with learning which I would like to share with you.

Persistence wins

Firstly, I learnt about more resources and support: Cassy Rutherford introduced, on behalf of the Knowledge Translation Network, the guide ‘Collaborating with academics’ which has practical tips and ideas for meeting the challenges that may occur; John McAteer from Scottish Collaboration for Public Health Research and Policy spoke about their fund to support collaboration through capacity building (third sector can apply for a grant for personal development opportunities, such as, attending a conference or course); and Shelley Breckenridge from Interface explained how they support business and academic collaboration through ‘matchmaking’ and mentoring services.

There was a general consensus that knowing what you want to get out of your collaboration and why – having a clear purpose is essential, and finding the ‘right’ academic can take persistence and time. At my table a third sector person said that they had found it difficult to get a response from an academic and had emailed several times.  They successfully made contact during the summer when the academic was not teaching.  

First, second and even third impressions count!

Secondly, I was surprised by Dr Peter Matthews’s honesty when he talked provocatively about ‘academic’ behaviour being different to third sector and therefore, difficult for third sector colleagues to get used to. He said academics are in the business of arguing their corner; it’s their job and sometimes they can appear abrasive.  They are often time-pressured and not available at certain times because of their timetabled teaching responsibilities, they may have very different styles of working and meetings, and don’t necessarily know about who they are working with! This made me think about different working cultures and the importance of understanding each other in a collaborative relationship. As earlier speakers Graeme Callander, Drink Wise Age Well, and Professor Lawrie Elliott, Glasgow Caledonian University, emphasised trusting your collaborative partners is imperative to its success. “There will be difficult conversations to be had” (Lawrie Elliott) and trust needs to be built and maintained to deal with the tricky times.

Having a common understanding matters

My last thoughts were about words meaning different things to people and how misunderstandings can happen because of language. For example, during the ice breaker discussions people said ‘impact’ meant ‘having a voice’, ‘being heard’, ‘seeing a visible difference in a person’s life’ or ‘research being used’ whilst for ESS it means ‘showing the difference’. During one discussion an academic made a point that the word ‘intern’ is perhaps more meaningful to the private sector, and therefore, academics may be more likely to think a request for an ‘intern’ has come from the private sector, not the third sector. This small point sums up one of the big ideas of the day – in order to have good collaborations between third sector and academia we need to ‘understand our different worlds’ (Jaqueline Rae, Scottish Government).

For more information about Let’s collaborate for impact click here