Opinion: The call for coalitions touches a nerve

The recent Charity Communications '07 conference was full of surprises.

Take the charity press director who, having listened to me talk about focusing on media actions that deliver results rather than mere coverage, asked about getting articles written to raise the profile of his chief executive in the voluntary sector.

My suggestion that bosses should do something worthy of the headlines they desire, and specifically get out a bit more rather than just aim to be a big fish in the charity world's rather minuscule pond, did not seem to convince.

Of far greater importance was a moment when a passing remark from the platform prompted a rush of questioning hands. The nerve was touched during my session on ideas and how to pitch them, when a fellow panellist advised charities that they could achieve greater media impact if they worked in coalitions.

It's an obvious suggestion, enabling charities - particularly the small and the specialist - to cut costs, share expertise and achieve more bang for their bucks at a time when scores, if not hundreds, of groups are operating in similar territory. But the hands-up sensitivity revealed concerns about both the politics and practicalities of coalition building.

It seems strange that in the voluntary sector, where the level of honesty and integrity should mean that there is no logic to competition, such cooperation seems so hard to develop or sustain. And there are several successful examples of multi-charity campaigns, particularly those global efforts on trade and debt, climate change and landmines.

So what's the problem about collaborating with friends? Money? Egos? Inexperience? Perhaps one dilemma of media-focused coalitions is that so many communications directors have potentially contradictory double roles as directors of fundraising. All those joint efforts to highlight a vital issue, prompt legal moves, shift attitudes, empower those in need and bring real change will not do much to pay the phone bill.

Let's hope the national hubs are working on coalition building. But is there a more fundamental problem? With changes in the law, additional duties for councils, a better funded welfare state through higher taxes and other potential targets of campaigning coalitions, many charities could shut up shop. And who, despite all the talk of working ourselves out of jobs, wants that to happen?

- Nick Cater is a consultant, speaker and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

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