Partnership is king, but not if you're an arm of the state

Working too much with government can blow your chances of making a truly additional difference, says Martin Edwards

Martin Edwards
Martin Edwards

If the state wants to use charities' expertise to provide services, and charities want more state funding, the logical deduction is that more statutory services should be provided by charities. That's partnership and, as we must all ritually intone, partnership is king.

But things that are logical are not always right, as I discovered when I was a teenager on my first date. The purpose of aftershave, I reasoned as I prepared for this great event, is to make you attractive to the opposite sex, so it follows that the more aftershave you use, the more attractive you will be. I therefore applied so much of my woody pine fragrance that I entered the cinema smelling like the entire Scandinavian tundra. Perfectly logical but, as my date and anyone within 50 feet knew, totally wrong.

Additionality test

Charities that rely on the state for most of their funding are almost as vulnerable as my doomed efforts at young love. But they face an even bigger problem than managing cutbacks from a single all-powerful funder: the 'additionality' test.

Such charities will say they provide their state-funded services better, more creatively or more cost-effectively than the state could. If they genuinely have niche expertise, fair enough. But where several providers compete to carry out those statutory duties, is a charity creating additional benefit to society? Would anyone really notice if it folded and another good bidder took its place?

Many of these charities are grand and ancient causes, founded by philanthropists or missionaries who were determined to give help above and beyond the role of the state.

What would those founders say if they knew that more than 90 per cent of the charity's work was now, in effect, an arm of the state - albeit an unusually compassionate and competent one?

Solving society's ills

Let's be clear: it's a good thing for charities and government to collaborate on solving society's ills and for government to help charities achieve more (or at least not to get in their way too much).

The charity I work for has commissioning partnerships and gets less than 20 per cent of its funds from the state. We would like more, but not much more, for this way we are self-reliant and entrepreneurial in our funding, and directly responsive to the changing needs of service users. Fundraising isn't as easy for less popular causes, but unless they have a unique niche, over-reliance on commissioning clouds their identity.

Partnership is good but, like aftershave, too much of it will blow your chances of fulfilling your mission to make a truly additional difference. Your date will just find someone else as their partner and, even though your mother will tell you "it's her loss", you will know in your heart that it was you who blew it.

Martin Edwards is chief executive of the children's hospice Julia's House

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