NEWSMAKER: Time to work together - Vivienne Parry, Administrator, GUS Charitable Trust

KIRSTEN DOWNER

They're like some species of sea creature that all live on a rock together, each fighting for their own particular crevice."

Vivienne Parry is talking about charities and duplication again, a pet subject for the former Tomorrow's World presenter and current administrator of the GUS Charitable Trust. "I have a bit of a mission to cut down on the number of charities," she confesses. A former News of the World columnist, as well as one time trustee of the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund, she says she spent a lot of her time on the tabloid "persuading people not to set up charities".

Parry says she understands the value of diversity but that the sheer number of charities working in similar fields makes it difficult for grant-givers to know where they should put their cash.

It was this frustration which drove Parry, on behalf of the GUS Charitable Trust, to convince 16 organisations from the prostate cancer field that they would achieve more working together than independently (Third Sector, 2 October). Fed up with handing out small amounts of money and choosing between different organisations, Parry told prostate cancer charities that GUS would give them £100,000 if they sat down together to thrash out their areas of common interest and devised a joint strategy for achieving them. The result was the Prostate Cancer Charter for Action, which calls for government action on transparency, public awareness, patient care, resources and partnership. Public relations company Harrison Cowley has been appointed to handle the media and PR strategy, and a high-profile campaign will run later this autumn.

But before that, the package has to be explained and sold to the rest of the charity membership - so far the collaboration has only involved one delegate from each of the organisations. Next month, Parry and other members of the trust have the unenviable task of meeting others from the charities involved and selling the package to them.

"It is a difficult task to accommodate everyone's views," admits Parry.

"That is why we concentrated on the commonalities. All these charities have much more in common than they have differences."

Last year GUS, which owns retailer Argos, spent approximately £1.3 million on charitable activity including grants, employee volunteering and gifts-in-kind. "We try to be thoughtful in our grant-making to try to see how we can give added value," says Parry. Sir Victor Blank, the chairman and co-founder of the trust, is also the chairman of the company. He also chairs charity WellBeing. Two other trustees, David Morris and Lady Patten of Wincanton, also help manage the trust.

"Sometimes it's easier for people on the outside to be focused on specific needs. Charities' noses are pressed very close to the glass, making it difficult to see sometimes," she says.

This type of grant-making does take significant time and money but at least this way funders know their cash will have impact, Parry believes.

"It's terribly time-consuming. It cost us a lot more than the £100,000 grant in terms of the huge amount of time we put in as a trust in order to make it work. But we would like to do something similar again. There are other (charitable) areas, maybe medicine, where we might try to bring people together to achieve common aims," she says.

Giving a lump sum to a group of charities and getting them to work together gives the smaller ones a chance to influence the policy of the larger ones, says Parry, and also avoids the funding lottery which creates winners and losers. "It's a perennial problem for funders; how do we choose between them? Sometimes it comes down to whether you think the charity can get the job done or not," she says.

Grant-making trusts such as GUS increasingly look for signs of competence and realism. "Have they gripped the problem? Are they realistic about their goals and the way they are going to tackle them? Is their time frame realistic? Have they got enough staff and have they understood the size of the problem?" she says. "Spelling mistakes would put me off too - as a mother of two dyslexic children, I'm more sympathetic than most to people with spelling problems, but it really doesn't look good."

Parry has worked as a broadcast and print journalist, as a trustee and was national organiser for charity WellBeing (formerly Birthright) from 1979 to 1994. She believes that charities still have a lot to learn when it comes to working with the media. "There's huge competition for news space - they're competing with insurance, 11 September, pensions and hundreds of other things."

Charities still misunderstand the media's role and purpose, says Parry, and this weakens their effectiveness: "It isn't there as an educational medium but both scientists and charities think that is what it's there to do. It's no good raging about the media's shortcomings - you need to work with it, because there's always space for a good, well told story."

Charities neglect the tabloids to the detraction of their cause, she reckons. "They're frightened to death of them and tend to see tabloids simply as an opportunity for fundraising. But tabloids are as issue driven as any of the broadsheets.

Let's not kid ourselves that they'd score a hit every time but tabloids will take up a cause and really run with it. British people hate unfairness and if you present your story in the right way and it touches a chord ... I wish it would happen in mental health, which is still one of the tabloid taboos - we just need the right case," she says.

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