Collaboration and Competition between Charities

Following on from their charities breakfast roundtable, Moorhouse explores the theme of collaboration and competition between charities with Suzy Liddell from the Trussell Trust. As organisations navigate the uncertainty and turbulence of COVID-19, there has never been a greater need to come together and work collaboratively towards shared goals.

For many charity organisations, the future looks decidedly unsettled. Developing sustainable and reliable funding streams against a backdrop of increasingly complex regulatory requirements and a challenging financial environment has in recent years put significant pressure on the Third Sector. 

In such a competitive landscape, it may seem natural for organisations to shore up their own borders rather than pro-actively collaborating with other charities. But does this ring true when we look at the current environment of the Third Sector? When I spoke to Suzy Liddell, Corporate Partnerships Manager at the Trussell Trust, a charity NGO who support a network of 1,200 foodbanks across the UK, she thinks this is changing. With more pressure now to innovate and not just rely on what’s worked before, charities are increasingly coming around to the idea that there are benefits to collaborating, teaming up and helping each other out.

It is already well documented that collaboration can deliver tangible benefits for organisations in the Third Sector. For example, hosting joint conferences, graduate recruitment schemes, and learning events, are an effective way to share costs, skills, and knowledge, and build long-term sustainability for organisations of all sizes. For small and medium size charities, the combined influence of several different organisations can open the door for better access to corporate partnerships. For the Trussell Trust, who work with other charities to alleviate hunger and poverty in the UK, teaming up puts them in a much stronger position than if they went it alone.

But can the benefits of collaboration go even further? For the Trussell Trust, working with others is central to their strategy. Providing emergency food and practical support to people in crisis is only one aspect of their work; the long-term mission is to end the need for food banks in the UK. This is an issue of such breadth and complexity, notes Suzy, that it isn’t something that any one organisation can fix. “A lot of what we do comes from campaigning for long-term change at a social and political level and the more voices you have saying the same thing the harder it is to ignore them.” This is certainly true in the case of the Trust’s #5WeeksTooLong campaign, which calls for an end to the five-week wait for Universal Credit payment. The campaign’s success has relied greatly on the cooperation and backing of a broad range of different organisations including Crisis, MacMillan Cancer Support, Mind, Scope, Centrepoint, and an extensive list of others. 

Perhaps one of the reasons why the campaign has been so influential is specifically because they’ve partnered with organisations you might not necessarily expect, MacMillan being a good example. “We see people who have gone through chemotherapy having to be referred to a food bank because of the financial impact that a cancer diagnosis has on their life and their families. Charities typically partner with someone very similar, but that really has to change. I think the key is partnering with someone completely different from you to get a broader perspective on the problem beyond what you already know. Anything else becomes a bit of an echo chamber.” 

But Suzy stresses that it isn’t just the importance of the message that drives real benefit behind any successful collaboration; but what each organisation can bring to the table. “The Trussell Trust is in an unusual and powerful position because of the amount of data and research we produce specifically for the purpose of social advocacy. Charities can undervalue the importance of data. It gives us credibility with the public and provides evidence that can’t be ignored. That’s rare, even with big charities.” Vital to this is, what Suzy calls, nailing the basics. “It needs investment in the right places. The culture needs to be right; there needs to be freedom to think and innovate. This kind of investment needs to be at the heart of the organisation. It needs to be CEO-led or it’ll struggle to catch on.” 

Perhaps one inherent advantage of the Trussell Trust is its size. “We’re a small to mid-size charity, so we don’t have the same bureaucracy that can often slow down decision making and hinder progress. When we started the #5WeeksTooLong campaign there weren’t lots of steering groups to get it off the ground. We just got the right people in a room and said, ‘let’s give it a shot and see what happens’. I think it would take a lot longer to get this off the ground in other large corporate businesses.” 

While there are increasing trends towards collaboration, some Third Sector organisations are slow to change. “Lots of charities feel like they have to do something ‘different’ to stand out. But so many are ultimately fighting for the same thing and would be stronger if they stood together. As I say, I think that is changing. The Joseph Roundtree Foundation, for example, is developing a framework to create a joined-up voice to engage the public about the realities of poverty. That combined voice is the key. If it’s important then your voice needs to be as loud as possible.” 

Moorhouse brings extensive experience helping organisations to navigate these types of organisational and whole system challenge. Our previous work with charities like the British Red Cross, the Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and Citizens Advice, to name a few, allows us a unique perspective on the differences, challenges, and - crucially - similarities between organisations in the Third Sector.

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Benjamin Pocock Senior Consultant