Analysis: When charity partnership is decided by a staff vote

Smaller charities, or those with less popular cause areas, often struggle to compete, writes Susannah Birkwood

Carers Trust was the Co-operative Group's charity of the year in 2013
Carers Trust was the Co-operative Group's charity of the year in 2013

Five charities – Age UK, the Samaritans, Action for Children, UK Youth and the Royal Voluntary Service – competed this year to be chosen by a staff vote as the IT company Fujitsu's charity partner for the next two years.

When the results of the staff vote were revealed, nobody was very surprised that Action for Children had been selected. Not only did the charity have a top-100 brand name, but it also represented one of the most marketable cause areas.

Staff votes are a popular way for corporates to decide which charity to focus their fundraising efforts on. But charities with lesser-known brands or harder-to-sell cause areas might end up wasting time and resources competing for something they are unlikely to win.

Jacquie Irvine, founder of the corporate responsibility consultancy Good Values, says smaller charities should search for corporate partnerships that are not decided by staff votes. Strategic corporate responsibility partnerships with companies such as Barclays and Rathbones Investment Bank are more easily achievable, she says.

Give up on staff votes?

But should charities that are not among the top 150 brand names, or deal with cause areas that are perceived as unpopular – such as mental health, older people or the rehabilitation of prisoners – give up on selections by staff vote? The charity UK Youth came close to this conclusion after losing numerous staff votes with firms such as Fujitsu and Marsh & McLennan. Catherine Townson, the charity's fundraising officer, says it plans to carry out a cost-benefit analysis before trying again and will prioritise partnership opportunities determined through pitches to company boards or charity committees.

Some firms, she says, offer compensation to charities for their time and money. Fujitsu, for example, gives runners-up £1 a vote, which for UK Youth amounted to £509. But Townson says charities are often left out of pocket – most companies offer nothing to any charity other than their chosen partners, leaving those that competed worse off than when they began the process.

Against the odds

Some smaller charities, however, have won staff votes against the odds. The Carers Trust beat Scope to become the Co-operative Group's charity of the year in 2013. Pushpinder Gill, senior corporate fundraising manager at the trust, attributes this to the "elevator pitch" – a short description of the charity – and a photo of beneficiaries, both of which appeared on the firm's intranet. "We were not allowed to canvass staff," she says. "But we did ask our vice-president, Hilary Devey from Dragon's Den, and the actor Michael Sheen, to tweet that we were up for the vote."

Another unlikely winner was Parkinson's UK, which in 2013 competed against Friends of the Elderly and top-10 charity brand name Marie Curie to partner with the financial services company Credit Suisse. Rachel Backshall, Parkinson's UK's head of business development, ascribes her charity's success to the company's decision to allow all the charities to canvass staff.

"This meant we could stand in the company foyer, go to the canteen and talk to staff face to face about the project we wanted funding for," she says. "We put together a slick campaign about a man called Roger who has Parkinson's and dementia. This made it easier for people to understand a very difficult condition."

Backshall thinks that company intranets are a poor way for lesser-known charities to communicate with staff. Charities such as Parkinson's UK will continue to struggle to win these partnerships, she says, unless more corporates allow charities to speak to their staff members before a vote.

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