Interview: Julie Bentley

The chief executive of the sexual health charity FPA tells Femke Colborne that its collaboration with Brook has been worth it

Julie Bentley
Julie Bentley

In early 2010, the sexual health charities Brook and FPA began to explore new ways of working together. The organisations had collaborated on previous projects, but wanted to find further ways to save money and reduce duplication.

They have since worked together on lobbying, fundraising, communications and events, retaining separate identities but sharing staff and resources. In April, all of the 20 or so staff at Brook's head office will move into the FPA offices in north London. Brook has a further 600 or so staff working in clinics across the UK.

The process has not been without its management challenges. "There was some anxiety, mainly because staff from both sides were very proud of their organisations and wanted to protect their brands," says Julie Bentley, chief executive of FPA, which has 40 employees. "So we had to be clear about what we would and wouldn't be doing, and clearly outline the rationale behind the decision."

The charities kept staff informed at regular meetings and in email updates, making sure they were given the opportunity to ask questions. They held a series of lunches so that staff could get to know each other, and since January there has been a 'hub' of desks in the FPA office for Brook employees to use. A working group comprising the two chairs and chief executives, two trustees and two senior executives met regularly to review progress and consider feedback.

"The most important thing was to have good quality communications and relationship-building in the early stages," says Bentley. "We focused on shared organisational values, a firm foundation, transparency and honesty of communications, and ensuring all our stakeholders were on board."

Neither charity has made any redundancies, although some jobs have been reconfigured as staff have left. There is now a joint communications team and a jointly funded policy and parliamentary officer, and senior executives are working together on campaigns and fundraising bids. The charities have also hosted joint events - although not without teething problems. "We had a joint House of Lords reception last year where we had too many speakers," says Bentley. "We tried to represent both charities too much."

Bentley says she and Simon Blake, chief executive of Brook, have adapted well to working together. "We had already developed a relationship based on trust and cooperation over the past four years, so there was a level of mutual respect there," she says.

The collaboration has already yielded some positive results, including a new awards night - the UK Sexual Health Awards, which will be held for the first time on 15 March - and a lucrative corporate partnership with the condom manufacturer Durex.

"Planning to work collaboratively takes a real time commitment," says Bentley. "At times it has felt like we are spinning plates, but we believe we are getting benefits from the collaboration and it is in the best interests of our service users."

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