Collaboration and Partnerships in the Charity Sector

Mergers are perhaps the ultimate (and definitely uncommon) form of collaboration in the sector. But a lack of mergers doesn’t mean that other forms of collaboration and partnership aren’t rife, vibrant and effective.  The sector, it seems, intrinsically leans towards working together for common good. The Charity Commission, in it’s ‘Hallmarks of an Effective Charity’[1] report, says that if a charity is to be fit for purpose, then it should “consider whether collaborations and partnerships (including the possibility of a merger) with other organisations could improve efficiency, the use of funds and the better delivery of benefits and services to beneficiaries.”

Collaboration can be big and small, short-term and long-term. At its most simple form, effective charity collaboration takes place on a daily basis. A 2016 paper from the Foundation for Social Improvement Report[2] into Collaboration for Small charities, found that networking activities were the commonest form of collaboration. As Sarah Grant, Director of a teacher training educational charity, LRTT puts it: “As a small charity, it’s really important that we can get together with others from our sector, chew the cud and soak up new ideas and themes. It gives us renewed vigour and energy, and makes us feel part of the greater whole”.

But how do charities go to that next stage of collaboration? What are the ingredients for success? It was at a networking event that Sue Farrington Smith, now CEO of the partnership focused Brain Tumour Research, realised that better collaboration and partnership in her sector was vital. Sue had co-founded ‘Ali’s Dream’ after the tragic loss of her niece and being shocked to discover the lack of awareness and chronic under-funding of research into brain tumours. Whilst Ali’s dream was delivering great services at a local level, Sue realised that if the issues and needs for brain tumour research were to be listened to and actioned at the highest level, then the voices of the 40 brain tumour charities needed to come together. So Brain Tumour Research was born.  Since 2009, the number of brain tumour charities has increased to 81, and the amounts raised for research and support risen from £4m to over £19m. As Sue says: “Our philosophy is to encourage smaller charities, many set up in memory of a loved one, to work with each other and collaboratively with us, united with one voice. Importantly, the power of coming together has improved advocacy and campaigning; government is listening and taking action.”

When asked the key ingredients for successful collaboration, Sue is quick to mention the need for trust, transparency and respect for each other. “It’s been really important for us all to recognise not only the power we have when acting as a single voice, but also to celebrate the individual roles that we can play – not only at a local geographical service level, but also in areas of specific operational expertise”.

Some commentators give warning to the dynamics of large organisations seeking collaboration with much smaller organisations. The world of sub commissions and passing on contracts to local service providers is not just restricted to the corporate sector – you can read other blogs where small local charities feel a bit stung from the inequality of partnership – a frustration for larger organisations who themselves can struggle with recognising the governance and administrative limitations of those nimble, locally focused charities.

Is it time for the sector to formalise aspects of collaboration and partnership? The corporate sector has been doing this for some time. The Institute for Collaborative Working[3], set up as a non-profit organisation by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the CBI, champions and promotes government standards in collaboration – BS 11000 and ISO 44001. They argue that there is a case for this standard because “as [businesses] see greater reliance on external parties to deliver solutions and an increase on contracting for outcomes, the emphasis on collaborative working will grow”.

As a sector, we can be confident of having a good history of collaboration. But with an ever changing and more demanding landscape comes the need to make sure we invest in giving charities the skills, competence and ultimately, the confidence to continue to collaborate well. Not just with each other, but with the corporate sector and government too.