Charity Partnerships: When two heads are better than one

Voluntary bodies are often strongly encouraged to work together and even merge, but such collaboration needs to be carefully thought through, writes Robert Gray.

When does it make sense for charities to work together? On the face of it, that's a simple question, but in fact it's deceptive. In the current climate, there is plenty of support for partnerships - from the obvious enthusiasm on the part of the Government and funders for voluntary sector bodies to collaborate to avoid duplication and increase efficiency, to the NCVO's Collaborative Working Unit, which offers general information and advice.

But despite the hype, collaboration isn't right for all charities all the time. Some organisations worry that it will drag them down the path to a merger they do not want. For others, the primary concern is that the arrangement will prove inequitable - that their partner stands to gain more than their own organisation. Others fret that collaboration risks diluting their brand and may distract them from their core purpose.

"One of the most important things is that the organisations should have similar expectations of working together," says Isobel Booth, information officer at NCVO's Collaborative Working Unit. "There has to be agreement and clear communication of that, especially if the organisations are different sizes. It's always a good idea to give time to planning and thinking these things through."

Booth accepts that a mismatch between organisations' cultures and philosophies is often much harder to identify. But she insists that this should not prevent prospective partners from exploring this area.

According to Booth, cultural factors must never be dismissed - success or failure can boil down to the capacity of the respective chief executives to work together. A survey last year into mergers and collaborations, conducted by Nabarro Nathanson and PricewaterhouseCoopers, found that culture clash was the biggest single barrier to a successful union.

Mike Tichelar, co-ordinator of children's charity Off the Record, was one of the prime movers in establishing a partnership with Barnardo's South West to run advocacy services for young people in the Bath and North Somerset area. "It was really the sharing of values and ethos that made it work," he says. "If we had just done it for the money or convenience, I don't think it would have been as effective."

Amid negotiations, it is essential not to lose sight of the charity's raison d'etre. Remind yourself why you exist, and retain focus on those you help.

"Collaborative working has to be undertaken in the best interests of the beneficiaries," says Richard Black, project manager for collaborative working and mergers at the Charity Commission. "It's essential that a due diligence exercise is undertaken. They need to look at the costs." Black recommends that charities take professional advice at all stages of the collaboration process.

In its Collaborative Working and Mergers paper, the Charity Commission argued that all charities should "consider seriously and imaginatively" whether there are ways in which they could do more for their users by working together. So how do you make collaboration worthwhile?

Your decision-making process should encourage you to think through all the implications before you start working collaboratively. Manage risks though planning. As the adage goes: marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Allow yourself enough time to make an informed decision for your organisation.

It is better to identify obstacles early and decide not to proceed than to call a halt once you have already invested time and effort in a new partnership.

Ensure you have satisfactory answers to the following questions: what are you hoping to achieve by collaborating with another organisation?

Is collaborative working the best way to achieve this aim? Who proposed the idea, and do they have a vested interest? Do your trustees and chief executive support the idea? Does it fit within your organisation's charitable objectives? Do your plans for collaborative working fit your values?

Your trustees have a remit to act in the best interests of your organisation and its beneficiaries. The final decision on any major change to your work rests with them. Study your governing document carefully. Does it include a power allowing you to amalgamate with other voluntary organisations?

Charities without this power usually have an implied power to work collaboratively if it is in the best interests of the organisation and its beneficiaries.

But implied powers do not allow for merger. If trustees are unsure, they should seek advice from the Charity Commission or a solicitor.

Collaboration can be a wonderful thing. But it should never be undertaken lightly.

For information, call NCVO's HelpDesk on 0800 2798 798 or email collaborate@ncvo-vol.org.uk

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