We spoke to Bristol Refugee Rights about the area's strategic collaboration and how this benefitted their Covid-19 response.
In Bristol, the refugee, asylum seeker and migrant sector had always worked in collaboration. Some organisations have joint funding, some are based at the same premises, we regularly come together for network meetings, to share plans, concerns, training and good practice.
The sector has been struggling to meet ever-increasing demand due to austerity and scarce funding opportunities. Funders encouraged closer working, but there were some areas we knew we could improve on.
The sector lacked a strategic voice, whilst duplication and gaps were also emerging. We knew that as a sector, we needed to look at how we approach collaboration strategically.
In the summer of 2019, Bristol Refugee Right (BRR) approached VOSCUR (voluntary sector support organisation in Bristol) for support with improving collaboration between sector organisations.
This led to us forming a steering group with 5 organisations (BRR, Bristol Hospitality Network, Red Cross, Borderlands and ACH). VOSCUR conducted interviews with around 15 different organisations who work with Asylum Seekers and Refugees in Bristol and the surrounding area with a plan to hold a sector away day in early 2020.
COVID-19 helped to catalyse our collaboration efforts. The main service delivery organisations quickly came together and met regularly to plan our sector response to the pandemic, which has led to us collaborating in new ways.
This happened naturally, partly because we had laid the foundations for the importance of collaborative working and the benefits to service users. We worked together to plan lockdown services – each taking a focus, for example: food, or advice, to ensure that all needs were met.
As organisations, we speak to make sure nothing was missed, to update on the emerging needs, and to better coordinate services. We have been sharing resources, surveys, funding opportunities and ‘news’ on a regular basis via email.
We’ve also developed a joint leaflet on service provision, which was translated into several languages as a result of a joint funding application. Together, we’ve been able to tackle strategic work, for example with Council, which has led to supporting them with move-on accommodation.
To help support the strategic efforts to work more collaboratively long term, we have held two sector-wide meetings over Zoom - where our newly named Bristol Refugee and Asylum Seeker Partnership have developed a vision, values and aims for the collaboration. We are currently working on developing an action plan and case for support to take the work to the next stage.
Individual conversations were really important, to discuss what was missing from how we collaborate. They provided a space for strategic conversations and helped foster a commitment to a joint purpose.
It was important to recognise unique drivers for collaboration and think about how better collaboration could specifically benefit them. Timing also helped – a number of organisations were facing a difficult funding year ahead and could see that working together would be key. Once some individual conversations had happened, the matter was raised at a network meeting, where it was easier to get other organisation’s on board as there were already a number who were supportive.
When we eventually came together for our collaborative meeting in July it felt so natural to be working in this way, because we had all been working so closely together throughout COVID-19. Developing our vision, values and aims has been much easier because of this.
VOSCUR has led much of the work and has been supported by the steering group, which to-date has been through their existing funding. Personally, it’s been about 2-3 hours a week for this work, which I’ve been doing for the past year. With that said, we have found that even people with a really limited amount of time have been able to engage where they can see the positives of this piece of work.
We have all learnt a lot during COVID-19 about the needs of asylum seekers, refugees and migrants in Bristol. We have supported people who were not previously using services and we recognise that by continuing to work together, we have a better chance of continuing to reach the most ‘hard to reach’.
We have all learnt more about each other's ways of working, which I think has presented some surprises and in other cases, similarities too.
Everyone is aware that we are not going to improve our collaboration overnight and that this is going to be an ongoing piece of work. Our action planning will continue to be iterative as what feels impossible now may be much more possible as the collaboration builds.
Ultimately, there has been a collective recognition that there will be bumps in the road, and that everyone’s buy-in and commitment is crucial. Investing in the collaboration is important and the partners have recognised that it will bring benefits for service users. It is important to capitalise on this good will.
COVID-19 was a set back but has also driven this work forward in a way we did not anticipate.
Different organisations have different capacity and resources for engaging with this work and that presents a challenge. There are also different motivations for their involvement and what they want to achieve.
But the pandemic has brought a unification that has fueled better collaboration and created a commitment to the sector, as it provides the best way to help those in need. It brought us out of our individual organisational focus and helped us realise we are stronger together and can do immeasurably more. I hope this focus on the sector aims and vision continues long after COVID-19 ends.
It’s been really positive. The sector clearly recognises that effective collaboration requires time and resources. VOSCUR’s role as an independent facilitator is appreciated by us and our partners, it means we can get on with delivering services and meeting people's changing needs.
It feels much more like the sector is speaking with one voice.
Trust has been built between organisations and we feel more confident relying on each other – in part this has come from our building understanding about each other’s organisations and values; in part from necessity.
Because each organisation has had a focus, it’s meant that we have not spread ourselves too thinly trying to do everything and we have avoided duplication. We have been able to reach more people by sharing data about who each organisation is in contact with and thus ensuring that one person isn’t getting welfare calls from 3 different organisations whilst another person receives none.
We have worked together to share resources e.g. BRR has distributed phone credit and devices as a result of a crowdfunder and this has been available to service users of all organisations.
On the whole, it feels like the sector is collectively reaching more people and has been able to do much more to meet their needs during COVID-19 as a result of working together.
We are working on developing an action plan for future work including our ‘new normal plan’; improved communication and collaboration channels; plans for joint funding; how we work together strategically as well as service user needs which we want to collectively work to meet better in the future.
I think it is really important to get buy in from other organisations on the purpose and benefits of collaboration work.
Working collaboratively can be massively beneficial both for service users and for organisations but it also takes a lot of hard work and dedication and it is unlikely it will be plain sailing. It is really important to find allies and to understand what drives individuals and organisations to collaborate so that you can talk to them about what the benefits to them/their organisation will be. Communication is really key in any collaboration as is trust.