Partnership: The gains and losses of doing things together

Partnerships between charities can conjure up a utopian vision of shared costs and skills. Annie Kelly looks at the possible benefits, and two chief executives give their experiences of a project they worked on together.

In theory, two charities working together towards a shared goal is a match made in heaven. Costs can be split and ideas explored, and beneficiaries stand to gain a double dose of experience and expertise in a single package.

"Effective collaborative working between voluntary groups will nearly always result in better outcomes for beneficiaries," says Isobel Booth, information officer at the NCVO's Collaborative Working Unit, the team set up to provide good practice, information and advice to organisations considering whether to work together.

In practice, of course, it's not so easy. The experience of Macmillan Cancer Support and Bradford Cancer Support is a case in point. A project that should have resulted in equal benefits for both charities and their service users instead became fraught with tension and communication breakdowns that led to both organisations feeling misrepresented and misunderstood.

"The danger is that if something goes wrong, misunderstandings can spiral into much bigger problems that can damage relationships," says Booth.

Charities should think long and hard before agreeing to collaborate on a project or campaign, says Booth. It's important to assess whether the two organisations really do possess shared goals, or whether cultural differences exist that might lead to conflicts over working practices.

Differences in management style or contrasting approaches to internal consultation and project implementation can overshadow the best of intentions.

For a small local charity such as Bradford Cancer Support, linking up with a large charity such as Macmillan, whose resources far outweigh its own, could lead to it being pushed to the periphery.

"Partner organisations that differ significantly in size can have problems because the larger charity is likely to have a more well-defined brand identity, which the public and beneficiaries can immediately identify," says Booth. "But if approached carefully, these kinds of relationship work well because the smaller charity can benefit from the expertise and resources of the large charity and, in turn, can often offer a more grass-roots understanding of the communities being helped by the joint programme."

The NCVO suggests that charities thinking of collaborating should set down clear terms and objectives in writing before embarking on a joint project. That way, roles and responsibilities are clear and expected outcomes defined. Charities should also think carefully about how the partnership is going to be presented. For instance, they should ensure that both parties are acknowledged and credited in equal measure.

Third Sector asked the chief executives of Macmillan Cancer Support and Bradford Cancer Support to tell their sides of their story and explain why they think their working relationship proved a mutual disappointment.

THE SMALL CHARITY

BRADFORD CANCER SUPPORT - SANDRA HUNTON, DIRECTOR

Bradford Cancer Support is a small local charity that opened in 1988 to provide psychological support for cancer patients and their families.

In 1991, a small budget was made available to employ a part-time benefits adviser. At this time, the one local Citizens Advice Bureau was overstretched and people were waiting for several hours to be seen. We knew cancer patients were not able to do this - we had to take our service to them.

Unusually for that time, the consultant oncologist at the local hospital permitted our worker to go on to the ward to see a patient. This was followed up with a home visit, which proved invaluable in helping us to learn what the patient's real needs were. This has been the pattern of our service ever since. We quickly discovered people in some very distressing social circumstances. The service grew and now provides advice and support in two hospitals - it also raises £2.3m each year for our clients.

Our advisers realised that it was crucial for patients to have easily accessible and comprehensible information about the benefits system and other sources of financial help. So the team leader wrote What Can I Claim, a simple, clear and comprehensive booklet for free distribution in Bradford.

Word spread, and we started to get requests for both the booklet and advice services from all parts of the country. Responding to these requests overstretched our resources.

We had been accessing Macmillan patient grants since 1991 and felt there was a place for them. We also thought it better, where possible, to improve a patient's annual income rather than provide a one-off grant. We tried to persuade Macmillan to divert some of the money spent on delivering this service into setting up a benefits advice service for patients. During the mid-to-late 1990s, we travelled to London and wrote letters trying to persuade Macmillan to see things as we saw them. It had access to the resources required to set up such a service and, through its Macmillan nurses and other staff, also had access to patients. We did not feel that our views were welcomed, however.

In 1999, we approached CancerBacup and received a positive response.

Both organisations needed additional funds to implement the plans, but a consortium bid for lottery funding was unsuccessful - this was a bitter pill and felt like the end of the road.

Meanwhile, Macmillan had taken over Cancerlink, the umbrella organisation for self-help organisations. The interest shown by the head of Cancerlink led to an evaluation of cancer advice services. Our service scored well, so they commissioned us to produce a plan for providing advice to cancer patients in England and Wales. The project turned out to be a telephone advice line funded by Macmillan, which we were to set up and run for a year.

When the first year was up, Macmillan then took over entire responsibility for the advice line. Patients anywhere in England and Wales now have access to help, and we are very pleased. So why this sense of dissatisfaction?

I think it stems from the effort of producing something combined with a sense that, somehow, we have been robbed. I do not think our experience is unique.

If we are honest, it's hard to see a big organisation come in with huge resources, implement your dream, do all the good things for patients and carers that you have always wanted to do and take the credit - even though it is entitled to it.

The small organisations that listen to people and identify their needs, and then respond to the levels of which they are capable, will never gain the national plaudits and, more importantly, the corporate sponsors that bring money and influence. They will never have the money to employ PR people and brand managers, who in turn enable organisations to grow and soak up even more of the available resources.

If one were to write an article in an academic journal or a book, one would acknowledge the sources of the material used. Shouldn't small, local organisations with first-hand knowledge, which are feeding information to the larger mass providers, also be acknowledged?

THE SUPER BRAND

MACMILLAN CANCER SUPPORT - PETER CARDY, CHIEF EXECUTIVE

For the past 96 years, Macmillan has been giving grants to cancer patients and their families in financial distress. By 2005, this amounted to £7.7m.

In the early 1990s, Cecile Levine at Bradford Cancer Support began to develop a benefits advice service for people with cancer. At that time, Macmillan saw its priority as improving clinical services, so it turned down a proposal for funding the embryonic service.

However, the two met again in 2001 when Macmillan merged with Cancerlink, because one of the BCS users was a Cancerlink trustee. BCS had been active in projects such as the production of good practice guidelines for cancer self-help groups and developing the Cancer Voices training programme.

It had also pioneered good practice in responding to the needs of south Asian people affected by cancer - it remains one of the handful of centres doing specialist work in this area.

BCS had always been seen as having a unique understanding of the impact cancer has on people's lives, the practical implications of this and the sources of financial help available. Benefits advice for people affected by cancer had been piloted and incubated by BCS, and other pilots had been supported by Macmillan in different parts of the UK. It was a natural development to set up a phone advice and casework service, and this was carried out by BCS as a one-year project funded by Macmillan. If demand was sufficient and the response successful, it was intended to become a UK service under Macmillan's auspices.

Whereas BCS had strength in running local services and financial advice, part of Macmillan's know-how was in developing national-scale services.

The demands are very different: consistency of response, tight quality control, promotion through extended networks, management of information and expectations. BCS's strength was in building confidence and skills in a self-help setting, but Macmillan needed a tightly managed service and BCS had not previously offered performance management on its menu.

Although Macmillan's funding included management costs, we provided much of the management support to get the service operational and prepare it to go national.

There were tangible benefits to working with an agency that had local relationships. BCS was able to secure better deals with local suppliers on everything from office furniture to telecom equipment. Basing the project out of London meant lower rents, although we do have the problem that our helpline services are, for the moment, disconnected from each other.

In many respects, the project was a typical short-term arrangement - but, because the long-term funding was to come from Macmillan, its sustainability was secured up front. To BCS it might have looked as though Macmillan was demanding and controlling, big and clumsy. We do consult, but our sheer size means that decisions have to be taken in a formal way through several decision-making cells, in contrast with an organisation that is small enough to allow everyone to talk to each other. It often seemed that BCS saw us only as a source of funding, particularly as it was concurrently preparing an application to us for a very large grant for a new centre whose long-term funding would turn out not to be sustainable. BCS might have felt that Macmillan only wanted its knowledge about benefits for people affected by cancer, with no corresponding payback. The lesson is a familiar one - that it can be difficult to match the processes and structures of two organisations, and that matching mutual expectations is often harder in reality than it looks on paper.

Was the experiment worthwhile? BCS felt bruised by its encounter with Macmillan, but the project required much more of our input and time to ensure its success. The more important question is: did it help people affected by cancer? This is the outcome on which we agree. In 2005, it spoke to almost 4,000 new callers and identified more than £11m of benefits and financial grants to which they and existing clients were entitled.

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