At Work: Partnerships - Collaborators - Non-profits working together - A consortium that saves money

Mathew Little

The Charities Buying Group has negotiated 100 agreements in just three years.

What cause could bring together 1,000 charities from opposite ends of the sector, uniting large household names with small community organisations?

Third world poverty? Global warming? Actually, it's saving money. And it helps that joining the club is absolutely free.

The Charities Buying Group was set up by Leonard Cheshire in 2003 to negotiate bulk-buying deals on behalf of its members. It has since achieved savings estimated at £3m, and chief executive Michael Hodgetts is convinced the venture could easily grow to encompass 20,000 organisations in the next two years.

Hodgetts, who has experience of buying consortiums in the NHS, was struck, upon joining Leonard Cheshire as purchasing manager, by the lack of similar arrangements in the voluntary sector.

A pilot project saw a group of charities, including Sense, the Royal British Legion and Leonard Cheshire, gain 30 per cent reductions on electricity and stationery and 40 per cent savings on telecoms. So, three years ago, the Charities Buying Group was opened up to the entire not-for-profit sector.

The group has since negotiated more than 100 buying agreements with suppliers, covering products and services as diverse as beds, disability aids, food, printing and vehicles. At first, suppliers were allowed to cold-call members of the group, but this was stopped in the wake of complaints. Now members log on to the website, browse buying deals and contact the Charities Buying Group, which puts suppliers in touch with them. There is one standard price for each buying deal.

Running costs are secured by charging suppliers commission for each piece of business they do. The group is a trading subsidiary of Leonard Cheshire and donates "a small profit" back to its parent charity in a tax-efficient way.

According to Hodgetts, it is the sector's grass roots that have gained most from the scheme. "The principle laid down from day one was that it is free," he says. "And it's open to anyone with charitable or not-for-profit status. The important thing is that it's those who need help the most - the smaller charities - that get the most benefits."

Expansion is on the horizon. Investment is taking place in the group's website to allow members to buy directly online, and Hodgetts is planning a marketing drive to recruit up to 30,000 new members in the next two years.

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