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Building Bridges: Growing Community Sector Capacity in Health Equity Partnerships

blog | Words Otto Wolf | 21 Feb 2024

Effective approaches to capacity building from The National Lottery Community Fund’s Health Equalities programme

Innovation Unit is the Learning and Support Partner for the The National Lottery Community Fund’s Health Equalities grants programme. The 12 grantees (meet them here) are all working to develop effective and sustainable partnerships between the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector and the statutory sector (including the NHS and local authorities) to improve health and wellbeing, reduce health inequalities and empower communities in their local areas. We bring the cohort together to generate and share learning across the programme. 

Our latest peer learning event explored the importance of capacity building in VCSE and statutory partnerships. Grantees shared how, through improving interpersonal relationships they were able to build stronger working relationships resulting in more efficient and impactful work. Grantees shared insights, summarised in this blog post, highlighting tools that prioritise building human connection, empathy, and understanding within the health and care system.

‘If only they knew…’ conversations

An issue identified by grantees in our cohort was the fact that often those working across different projects felt like their contributions, achievements, and skills were not fully understood. To counteract this, participants in the workshop suggested facilitating ‘If only they knew…’ conversations. These conversations are designed to allow people to share aspects of their work or personal life that they rarely get a chance to discuss with their colleagues. Incorporating such conversations into team-building or strategy days can be a simple way of improving working relations and building positive relationships across and within projects.

Buddy scheme

Buddy schemes are a proven way to boost social connections in organisations and foster skill-sharing especially across health leader roles and partnered VCSE organisations. Such systems facilitate cross-organisational understanding of the challenges that teams face, enhancing collaboration and understanding. Finally, when buddying individuals up, grantees suggested pairing together individuals with different strengths, in doing so this approach works to build confidence and ensure the insights shared amongst the buddies are valuable to one another. 

Funding VCSE engagement

Many grantees are directly funding the time of VCSE organisations allowing them to actively engage in health structures. By providing funding for time given by colleagues working in VCSE organisations, this has two clear benefits. Firstly, it can increase the material capacity for VCSE organisations which often have incredibly tight budgets and, secondly, it can help to ensure that VCSE organisations and their personnel feel their work is recognised and valued. This can reduce likelihood of resentment and inequality forming within partnerships, leading to burn-out and reduced cooperation. 

The importance of face-to-face interactions

Grantees emphasised how high-quality, face-to-face interactions are often under appreciated in building capacity for collaborative work and deepening relationships across sectors. As one grantee described, there is a need to focus on ‘making the tea and cakes’. By organising events such as breakfast mornings, world cafés, and, of course, literally preparing tea and cakes, it becomes possible to facilitate these vital face-to-face interactions that can be so effective in building stronger connections across the sectors.

Grantees’ strategies, ranging from the more structured buddy schemes to more informal ‘If only they knew…’ conversations collectively underscore a common theme: deepening relationships and understanding across the VCSE and health sectors takes time and attention, but is a crucial investment in building the foundation for effective collaboration.

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