In this section: - Why partnerships matter - Characteristics of effective partnerships - Some tools for discovering the developing strengths of your partnerships in alcohol hidden harm

First steps

Reflect on this early 17th Century quotation below, written in the early 17th century by the poet and cleric John Donne, and its implications for work with families where parental alcohol misuse is a problem.

No man is an Island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the Continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were....

John Donne, 1572-1631

Just as an individual’s alcohol misuse affects the whole family, a specific service can make a considerable impact on the health and wellbeing of that family. However, no single service or organisation can hope tomeet all the needs - and when even a small part of your network of partners is ‘washed away’ for whatever reason, it can have a significant impact on your work with a family.

Ask yourself: who are the best partners for your work? Whose clients could gain from the service you are offering? Who can help your clients address their additional needs? These questions may need to be revisited throughout the development of your service – and long after it has become established as other services come and go, and respond to changing political and economic circumstances.

Partnerships in alcohol hidden harm

Our evaluation of the Comic Relief funded projects has reinforced the widely held view that partnership working is essential to the wellbeing of children, especially where one or more parents have problems with alcohol. However, we have identified relatively few specific partners which are essential to ensuring services are effective. Our ‘model’ of partnership is a comparatively simple one, based on the strength, reciprocity and mutual professional support each partner gains as a result of working together.

To a large extent the number and type of partners must vary according to the scope of the planned service and the scale of the organisation which is its host. So an organisation which already offers parenting support for families where substance misuse is a problem will not need a partner which can offer that element. However a service which exists primarily to support children who are carers, but is not embedded in a substance misuse service will need strong connections to adult alcohol services. During the evaluation of the Comic Relief funded projects we interviewed partners identified by each service and were surprised at the range of voluntary and statutory services with whom some were connected, to a greater or lesser extent. Importantly, the best services formed partnerships based on the needs of their individual clients rather than a rigid predetermined group of partners identified at the outset.

Case study: Working together

A male client whose partner was in prison for alcohol related offences was left to care for her teenage child. The carer was disabled and had a history of alcohol misuse for which he was receiving one to one support from an alcohol hidden harm service. The teenager also received support from a volunteer mentor who as well as taking the teenager out was willing and able to play computer games, which the carer was unable to do. The Comic Relief funded service also helped the carer by offering parenting classes, but importantly contacted local services who support adults with disability who made improvements to the home and carried out a deep clean of the premises. This all round support for the family, provided by the service and their range of partners was highly valued by the client.

Strong, reciprocal and mutual

The most successful partnerships we observed were strong enough to withstand the loss of a particular keen or charismatic member of staff or volunteer who may be a key contact. Both partners could describe benefits for each organisation and clients and were supportive of one another in negotiations or discussions with other agencies. In some areas partnerships were formalised with service level agreements and strategic meetings between senior leaders and managers. Resources such as training opportunities, networking events and premises were often shared. Weaker partnerships were one-way, e.g. where one party simply made referrals to the alcohol hidden harm service but had no other beneficial relationship with the service. In some areas the alcohol hidden harm services struggled to make links with adult alcohol services, which made their work with parents more difficult.

During the evaluation we developed a tool known as the ecogram, to help the services and evaluators identify the projects’ partners and to provide a mechanism for reflecting on the strength and direction of the partnerships. The ecogram enabled services to identify aspects of partnerships which needed development, including gaps which needed to be filled. The full details of the ecogram are included below.

At the half way point in the three year funding cycle we asked each project to identify other agencies, organisations or representatives (AORs) working in the same geographical area and with whom they had some professional relationship or ‘understanding’

For each of the AORs identified, they were then asked to quantify the relationship on 3 dimensions:

  1. How influential is the AOR in the determination of policy, strategy and practice in your field of work - Alcohol Hidden Harm?

  2. How closely does the AOR identify and empathise with your approach to working with families and children?

  3. How good is your relationship with the AOR?

For each of these dimensions, the project leaders were asked to allocate a quantity, on a scale of 0 to 4, where 0 equated to ‘not at all’ and 4 to ‘very’.

Each project was also asked to say for each category, on the same scale, how it stood at the beginning of the project and how it was at the 18 month point, and additionally if they were working on trying to improve any aspect of the relationship with that AOR. They were also given the opportunity to comment on and discuss the AORs and the nature of engagement with the Comic Relief projects.

It was interesting to reflect with the services the extent to which the partnerships had developed over 18 months, with both the weakest and strongest projects having made the fewest changes to their initial pattern. Where well established partnerships meet client needs there is often no reason to make major changes. However, where partnerships do not deliver better outcomes for clients, there is clearly a need to focus on how these can be improved, while continuing to develop the service itself. Partnerships are rarely static. New services emerge and where a vital partner is lost, for example because of cuts to funding, it is important to identify how that gap can be filled for clients.

In some cases partnerships are so mutually beneficial that they are self supporting, with shared protocols, screening tools and good systems for information sharing. Co-location of services can also facilitate good practice where children are concerned. However, some partnerships need more detailed structures to ensure a good understanding of what each partner is trying to achieve.

Case study: Service level agreement

A service covering a large area, with poor transport links, offered long term play therapy for young children on their school premises as an alternative to attending the service base. Parents, teachers and professionals found the arrangements worked well and children benefited from regular contact with a well trained worker. However, space in schools was at a premium and the practitioner was sometimes asked to work in a staff room, where the sessions might be interrupted. Teachers, while valuing the therapeutic aspect of support in keeping children engaged in their education, were unclear about the boundaries for confidentiality. They were used to knowing everything about the child and wondered if the child had been distressed or angry during the sessions and how they should manage these emotions without immediate feedback from the practitioner. In order to address both practitioners’ and teachers’ concerns a service level agreement was drafted which set out in clear terms what the schools could expect from the service – and what the service expected from the schools.



Using Ecodata and ecograms

Using and analysing ecodata is a way of studying the context and relationships that projects work with and in. It helps to understand and map the complexity of the professional and sometimes the political climate that influences the work of projects. When data about relationships has been looked at in a systematic way it can be used to construct plans for the development of working partnerships and improved relationships, and to chart the progress and success of those plans.

Ecograms can be used to visually represent different dimensions of relationships between people, agencies and organisations in projects, and show their relative strengths and positions in the AHH environment.

In particular, ecodata can be used to assess three aspects of relationships

  1. How influential another Agency, Organisation, or Representative of some other body (AOR) is in determining policy and practice in the area in which you work. In this case, area means both the focus of your work or project - your primary task - and the geographical area in which you hope your interventions will have some effect.

  2. How closely another AOR aligns with your primary task - that is, the extent to which they agree with your theory and practice as they relate to what your project or work is trying to achieve.

  3. How strong the relationship between your organisation and other AORs is.
    Collecting ecodata At its most straightforward, the data can be gathered through a discussion with your team, using a table like the one below to collect your thoughts. The process is as follows

  4. List all the AORs that you feel are relevant to your project, now or in the future;

  5. For each of the 3 dimensions - Influence, Closeness, Strength - assign a value between 0 and 4, where 4 is the best it can be, for each of the AORs;

  6. Make a note if you intend to develop a relationship on any or all of the 3 dimensions, and any agreed strategy for doing that.

Agency/Organisation Influence in the area covered by your work Closeness to your core task Strength of your relationship Are you working on changing the relationship? Additional information
At start of project 6 months later At start of project 6 months later At start of project 6 months later

It can be a good idea for each member of the team to complete their form separately, as the discussion provoked when you get together to compare your judgements can be very useful in clarifying relationships with other agencies and strategies to develop them.

Uses of ecodata:

  • To map the environment in which your project is working, or plans to work;
  • To demonstrate to yourselves, and to others, the range and number of AORs you engage with in the course of your work;
  • To help plan development strategies for improving professional relationships that enhance and add value to your own work.

If the ecodata assessment is repeated at regular intervals over the lifetime of your project it can be used to demonstrate the changing numbers of AORs, and your organisation’s relationships with them. This chronological data can be helpful in tracking the progress of some of your objectives, particularly if they include raising awareness, increasing the capacity of other AORs, working together on professional development, or improving communications and referrals - and nearly all projects have elements of these in their plans.


A further development of the use of ecodata can be in plotting ecograms. The diagrams represent the 3 dimensions pictorially, and are a quick and easy way of showing both the current assessment of relationships, and changes over time. Below is a section of an ecogram, with the darker coloured circle at the centre representing a project. The linked circles show the project’s AORs, where:

  • The size of the circle is the influence of the individual AOR - the bigger the circle, the more influential the AOR;
  • The distance from the central project represents the closeness to the primary task - the further away the less aligned that AOR is to the objectives and approaches of the central project;
  • The thickness of the line represents the strength of the relationship. In addition, an arrow head can be used to demonstrate the direction of strength of the relationship - a double-headed would show that the relationship was reciprocal and mutually beneficial, for example.


The use of ecograms to illustrate ecodata is not really necessary for single projects, but it can help to show the complexity of multi-agency projects, as shown below. The illustration shows the relationships between a funder (at the centre) and five projects, each of which have a range of partnerships with other agencies, but also with each other which may or may not be facilitated by the funder. The direction of the arrows can indicate the ‘direction of the relationships, whether one-way or reciprocal. This kind of mapping can also be useful to show information and referral pathways, and which relationships are most productive in helping to achieve your project’s objectives.

There is computer software that can produce these maps, but it is just as effective to draw them on a sheet of flipchart paper, maybe using post-it notes of different sizes to represent the AORs.