Few charities have been as successful at winning contracts as the Shaw Trust. The charity, which helps disabled people to find work, delivers more than 600 contracts in the UK.
Its most high-profile success came in December when the Department for Work and Pensions awarded it three contracts in the second round of its Pathways to Work programme, which gets people on incapacity benefit into employment (Third Sector Online, 21 December 2007).
The trust had been the only charity to win a commission in the first round of bidding three months earlier.
Business has continued to roll in this year: the trust has won eight contracts, each worth hundreds of thousands of pounds, to run local involvement networks on behalf of the Department of Health. The networks, known as Links, were introduced this year to replace patients forums by finding out what people want from local health services.
The trust has also been awarded five Links transition contracts, which are interim deals until full agreements have been put in place.
There have been other high-profile successes: after the charity Instant Muscle went into administration in February, the Shaw Trust stepped in to take over four New Deal for Disabled People contracts that Instant Muscle had been delivering on behalf of the DWP (9 April, page 3).
Success on the bidding battlefield has swelled the charity's size. In the past four years, its annual income has grown from £45m to £70m, more than 95 per cent of which is derived from contracts. Staff numbers have risen from 600 to 1,300 and the number of people the charity has helped has increased from 15,000 to 60,000. It must be doing something right.
Some of its success is down to political expediency: the DWP's decision to farm out welfare work is manna from heaven for an organisation that specialises in helping disabled people find work, as Catherine A'Bear, chief officer for corporate affairs at the trust, acknowledges.
"Services we have provided for the past 25 years have become the focus of politicians," she says. "For many years, employment for disabled people wasn't on their radar. But since 2000 they have recognised that it's an issue that needs to be addressed."
But it isn't all down to luck. Competitive procurement is hostile terrain and the trust hasn't won bids uncontested. One of the organisation's main attributes, says A'Bear, is its ability to adapt to whatever the contract demands. "We get the results that commissioners are looking for."
The charity, which is based in Wiltshire, has a 10-strong business- development team dedicated to finding new work. Its bids concentrate on providing evidence that its methods work rather than relying on any old-fashioned, touchy-feely ideas about charities being closer to communities or more in touch with clients' needs.
Such complacency is one of two common mistakes charities make when bidding, says A'Bear. "Just working hard at something isn't enough," she says. "You have to work hard at presenting it, too."
The second error is thinking what they do works rather than concentrating on what the tender document stipulates. "They do not listen well enough to what commissioners say they want," says A'Bear.
She advises charities to keep a close eye on the tender process and the demands of commissions. In the case of the DWP - and most government departments - this means thinking big. "There's no doubt that the DWP is looking to work with organisations of a certain size," she says. "There is a real danger that this kind of approach could exclude third sector providers."
This is worrying news to a relatively impoverished voluntary sector that consists mainly of small organisations. The trust has responded by creating a consortium of third sector employment and training providers that can submit bids jointly. About 10 charities, including Dyslexia Action and Employment Opportunities, have joined so far.
A'Bear predicts more collaboration of this kind if the trust is to remain competitive in the trend towards larger contracts. "The scale of contracts means I can't imagine one organisation providing all the services," she says. "The strength of our success in the future will be based on how well we work with other organisations,"
The Shaw Trust may have leaped ahead of its rivals, but its continued success could depend on other charities as well as themselves. Not that the trust is hung up about who it works with - it also collaborates with private companies.
Pragmatism, it seems, counts for more than dogma in the public services bidding war.