Collaborators Corner: Daksha Piparia

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Daksha Piparia, Citizens Advice Coventry’s Head of Campaigns and Targeted Services, talks to Collaborate about collaborating with Severn Trent Water on the Big Difference Fund to help people in Coventry who were struggling to pay their water bills.

The Fund proved successful and has since transitioned into the Big Difference Scheme.

The Big Difference Fund

Where did the idea for the Big Difference Fund come from?

It all started a few years ago. It was at a meeting of the Coventry Financial Inclusion Forum, which I attended on behalf of Citizens Advice Coventry. One day, after a meeting, I was walking down a corridor with Laura Bennett from Severn Trent Water when she suddenly turned and said to me, ‘How do you feel about doing a joint project?’ She suggested a figure and we talked numbers. The Big Difference Fund grew from a blank piece of paper to a sustainable model.

Did you champion the collaboration or were you forced into it? Be honest!

I can assure you that there was no forcing involved! I was delighted to do it. I have found that the more we share, the more common ground we have to reach people who need our help. We are lucky to have had a CEO who was very much in favour of collaborating, sharing best practice and supporting other organisations, which makes a great difference. 

Did you have any doubts or second thoughts? 

No, but I’d had experience of a previous collaborative project when I was at Advice Services Coventry that had not enjoyed the same success. There were massive challenges as approaches to policy work were very different. But from this I learnt the following lessons: being angry or frustrated by lack of progress gets you nowhere. Creating useful partnerships is the most effective route to influencing policy change. I was very sorry that this particular collaboration didn’t turn out as it should have done, but there you go!

Who is better at collaboration – you or your fellow collaborator?

That’s a tough question. It depends – we’re very different. I would say CAC is a little better because at the end of the day our motivation is not about shareholder return. Though, of course, part of our motivation is funding related, but it is always about the helping the clients. We’re not looking for funding just to employ a couple of extra case workers, for example, if that doesn’t benefit our clients.

Was it all smooth sailing?

No, it was certainly not all smooth sailing! We both have different mentalities, not to mention different focuses. We sometimes had to remind them that we were there to support our clients. At the beginning, we had to really explain what we do, why we had to do this collaboration and to assure them that there was no hidden agenda. Honesty and transparency proved essential in overriding any concerns or barriers to progressing with the Fund.

Were there any ‘pistols at dawn’ moments?

Oh, yes, there were plenty of those! ‘This is not what we agreed’ became a catchphrase for a time. There were some issues and disagreements with Severn Trent Water regarding delivery, but we learnt to be better at managing expectations by documenting everything we agreed. We also started looking more at the original requirement of the agreement for reference and clarity.

What’s it like collaborating with another sector?

I have to say that collaboration can fail very quickly if you don’t speak the same language as your fellow collaborator. In my case, I would say that this collaboration was helped by the fact that my background was originally in the private sector. I worked in a bank for 10 years. While it proved not to be my cup of tea in the end, working in the banking sector taught me a lot about good business processes and project management. This knowledge base proved invaluable.

The third sector, on the other hand, is very different in terms of professionalism, so it was wonderful working with Laura and her colleagues at Severn Trent Water because we shared similar frames of reference. I could engage with them on a professional level (accessing the right tools and financial reporting both being good examples). All this eased the process.

What support systems helped the collaboration?

I have to say that it was a challenge to get national support. A good example: I needed to procure a new IT system. No one within the organisation was able to tell me how to do it, so I had to learn myself. I also had to ask senior trustees with private sector experience for guidance. Since then, I have started using my own resources and networks in addition to volunteering with a community panel. But with support systems, I would say that being able to rely on senior management is essential.

Which is more important in collaboration – trust or just getting on with it?

You can’t move forward without trust. It’s just not possible.

Were the people in your organisation supportive of the collaboration?

No, not at the beginning. Believe it or not, there was outrage from some of the staff. One or two people even stopped speaking to me for a time!

That must have been hard.

Yes, but you know, I admired their position. After all, they were standing up for the rights of the clients, so you really can’t fault them for that. After all, the clients are what matter. But it did take a lot of work and commitment to change their minds.

Did this lead to other challenges?

In the first years, we really struggled to get our own clients to apply for grants. Some people really didn’t like the idea of taking private sector money. We really worked hard to prove ourselves. Our efforts have provided the vital groundwork for the projects that we are currently running, so nothing is wasted. 

What sort of leader are you?

I am a collaborative leader by nature. I try to take people on a journey by sharing ideas and challenges with them, but I have to balance this with working quickly and effectively. I am very proud of the Big Difference Fund because by working well together we have delivered strong results.

Did collaborating ever make you feel vulnerable or exposed?

Yes, in the very early days of the collaboration, I was surprised to hear staff talk about potential sources of conflict, which completely went against my policy of trust and honesty. I had thought that the whole team was on board and understood the programme, so this came as a bit of a shock. I could see early signs of potential cracks in the team dynamic. I thought, ‘If my team is not fully behind this, then we are not going to get to where we want to be’. These were dark days, if I’m completely honest with you, but then every day has its challenges. Managing the ‘people’ element is possibly the hardest part of collaborating. It’s important, yes, but it can take up such a lot of time!

Are there any quality examples of collaboration or innovation that have caught your eye?

In terms of innovation, the other day I read an article about a charity called Arty-Folks, a Coventry-based art therapy group for people with mental health conditions. I found it quite inspiring, particularly when you think of the number of people needing help who don’t seek support.

What is your favourite part of collaborating?

Well, first and foremost, it would have to be the ‘light bulb moment’, that wonderful minute when people suddenly realise the value of working together. You can see it in their eyes, you really can! Additionally, I think that personal relations are the key ingredient to collaborative working and to understanding someone’s values and drive. Laura and I have worked well together as collaborators because of the time and effort we made to understand where we were coming from in the partnership.

What do you least like about collaborating?

When you struggle or fail to convince other people that there is a mutual benefit in collaborating. That has to be the worst, though I’m sure there are other close contenders!

How would you score the collaboration (out of 1-10)?

It would have to be 9/10 for me. It has proved sustainable and we have moved from just the Fund to the Big Difference Scheme which covers a lot more ground.

Any recommendations for aspiring collaborators?

On a personal level, I have found it a very positive experience working for a male and then a female chief executive. Let’s be frank, men and women do sometimes do things differently. Working or collaborating, as a woman, with male leaders can sometimes be a challenge, particularly when you’re trying to make them understand what you and your team are trying to do.

But my three recommendations for people considering collaborating with partners are as follows:

  • First of all, be authentic. Maintain strong professional standards and don’t stray away from them.
  • Secondly, learn to relax your guard with your fellow collaborators.
  • And finally, be passionate. If you don’t believe in the collaboration, then it will fail. It’s as simple as that!

To learn more about the Big Difference Fund, please click here.

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