How do we build partnerships to bring youth work & mental health together?

How honest and sustained relationships are the key to effective partnerships.

Traditional wisdom for funders suggests that encouraging and supporting partnership bids from voluntary sector organisations can help to ensure that hoped-for outcomes are delivered.

The assumption is that voluntary sector organisations in a town, city or region will be able to achieve more if they can work together and with statutory partners, particularly if the ambition is to change local practice and policy.

In 2009, when Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Mental Health Foundation set in motion the five-year Right Here youth mental health programme, the decision was made to explore the potential of cross-sector partnerships to develop new ways of supporting young people’s mental health and wellbeing. The foundations selected four different local cross-sector partnerships to develop these new ways of working.

It was hoped that this would be the beginning of new and long-lasting partnerships between voluntary sector youth work organisations and public sector bodies concerned with young people’s mental health and wellbeing, and that new funding would follow.

The foundations also hoped that Right Here would enable a cross-pollination of approaches in order to reach more young people and change their lives. In mental health, as in most areas of the public sector, there is often talk of the disabling existence of silos of either expertise or resources that prevent the effective creation and implementation of solutions to problems. These silos, it is argued, are often the primary force holding back cross-sector partnerships.

The Right Here local partnerships in Brighton and Hove, Fermanagh, the London Borough of Newham, and Sheffield – funded by Right Here for five years – were all partnerships formed between a number of bodies in the local areas. Some of these bodies had pre-existing relationships, while others came together specifically to take part in the Right Here programme.

Right Here assigned leadership of each of these partnerships and the funding to a youth charity in the hope that this would strengthen the profile and contribution of the voluntary sector locally. In some cases, the lead charity delegated funds to other organisations within the partnership.

The partnerships

Right Here Brighton and Hove was a partnership led by Sussex Central YMCA. The core partners were Mind in Brighton and Hove, and Brighton and Hove City Council’s Children and Families Services, with whom Sussex Central YMCA had existing working relationships.

Right Here Fermanagh was led by Youth Action Northern Ireland (YANI). Partners included a wide range of local statutory and voluntary sector bodies, such as, among others: the Public Health Agency for Northern Ireland; the Western Health and Social Care Trust, Fermanagh District Council; the Youth Council for Northern Ireland (YCNI); the local Youth Service; the Western Education and Library Board; and Action Mental Health. The funding received as part of Right Here was a small part of YANI’s income and it was able to utilise existing working relationships and build on these to draw in organisations it had not worked with previously.

Right Here Newham was led by New Choices for Youth Trust in a partnership brokered by the Newham Primary Care Trust specifically to bid for and deliver Right Here. Partners included the Harmony Family Centre and Newham Asian Women’s Project. In 2010, an independent chairperson from the University of East London was brought in to help manage differences between the partners.

Right Here Sheffield was initially based at YMCA Sheffield. In April 2011, YMCA Sheffield merged with another YMCA to form YMCA White Rose. In January 2014, the programme moved to social enterprise Interchange Counselling CIC. As with Right Here Newham, a range of organisations were brought into partnership for the purpose of securing the Right Here funding. These partners included Sheffield Health and Social Care Trust, Sheffield Children’s NHS Foundation Trust, Sheffield PCT, Youth Association South Yorkshire, and Sheffield City Council, as well as local charities Children and Young People’s Empowerment Project (Chilypep), a core delivery partner, and Sheffield Futures.

What did Right Here learn about partnerships?

The evalution of the five-year programme carried out by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) found that Right Here had helped to retain a commitment to cross-sector partnership working at a time of increasing sector instability.

The duration of Right Here (2009–2015) aligned almost perfectly with the period of the largest reorganisation of public bodies and the single largest reduction in public spending. With austerity beginning in the run up to the election of the Coalition Government of 2010, the longest economic depression since the 1930s, and the implementation of the Health and Social Care Act 2013, the four local Right Here partnerships were operating in conditions of difficulty unheralded in recent memory.

For some of the charities involved in the partnerships, there was a sense that Right Here provided a much-needed focus on young people’s mental health for a range of local organisations, both voluntary and statutory. As one charity put it: “For a while, Right Here almost provided an alternative forum where we could meet and keep up to date with what was going on” (Right Here project partner). The long-term nature of the Right Here funding helped with this, “enabling projects to maintain focus on their aims and provide a space where discussions about young people’s mental health services could continue in spite of the enormous upheaval taking place across health and social care in the public sector”.

Others suggested that involvement in the partnership had allowed them to punch above their weight and to highlight statutory services the voluntary sector has to offer to young people and mental health. “I think perhaps statutory services are now acknowledging a bit more what the voluntary sector has to offer. In the area of adult mental health this has been the case for a while I think, but there were not that strong links with the voluntary sector around young people and mental health. I think Right Here has helped to shift that” (Right Here project partner).

However, the challenging and shifting policy and funding context across the wider public and voluntary sector created a range of unforeseen difficulties for the partnerships.

As IVAR noted, “Many of the local projects found that the original partnerships set up to oversee Right Here were subject to uncertainty and change as local stakeholders tried to work out their role in the new order, and, in some cases, left the sector. Some organisations were so depleted by the cuts that they could no longer participate practically in Right Here, resulting in, for example, the loss of key referral agencies.”

The environment also sometimes bred competition and suspicion. As one interviewee told IVAR: “This fraught environment, with much less resource, created a competitive environment for the voluntary sector where partnership working became more difficult. People were more inclined to watch out for themselves, and hold back somewhat around sharing.”

How well the partnerships managed these challenges depended, to a large extent, on the quality of the relationships at the heart of them, and the experience and confidence of the lead partner. Not surprisingly, the newer partnerships, forged in the bidding process, found it more difficult to weather the storm. “Where partnerships already existed, progress was always going to be quicker, but in Newham, for example, the partnership effectively collapsed fairly soon after the beginning of the project as individuals who had been key to the bidding process left, and a lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities unravelled. In Sheffield, there was tentativeness on the part of the voluntary sector agency to lead the process, as they had never done so before. Progress in this area was incremental and there was some frustration that the slow burn nature of this kind of work meant that significant results (for example, creating relationships of trust between partners) were only just starting to be achieved in the final years of the initiative” (IVAR).

What can we conclude?

It is seductive as a commissioner or funder to assume that there is a ‘perfect shape’ for partnerships that will guarantee the wished-for outcome of bringing different sectors together for more integrated ways of working. It is often easy to mistake the elegance of the shape of a partnership on paper for the reality of the ways in which it will play out in practice.

The creation of partnerships should, wherever possible, be led by strategic assessment of the requirements of the project at hand and the realities of existing relationships. In the youth work and mental health sectors, forces external to organisations – as well those internal – influence the stability of partnerships, particularly if the challenges and risks of working together are not considered prior to commencement.

Certainly, within Right Here, as IVAR concluded: “It was a mistake to make formalised partnerships a pre-requisite for the award. Rather, with the benefit of hindsight, joint exploration of existing and potential future partnerships with applicants might have been a more fruitful approach.”

A partnership to carry out a complex set of interrelating and evolving activities needs both nurturing and guidance. As with all other areas of the Right Here programme, honest and sustained relationships based on reciprocity and respect were vital for developing the resilience required to make amazing things happen in trying times.

Read more about Right Here and making youth work led mental health for young people a reality.