News in focus: The teamwork approach to corporate fundraising

The collaboration of the four charities behind fundraising club Disability United could herald a new approach in pitching to corporates. Dominic Wood weighs up the pros and cons of this new strategy.

Wooing corporates for charitable donations is never easy. Last week, four charities took a new approach by banding together to form a fundraising club and give large companies multiple reasons to part with their cash.

Disability United, a consortium comprising Leonard Cheshire, Action for Blind People, Mencap and the MS Society, will pitch for major corporate donations and split the proceeds four ways. They believe that together they can offer companies more expertise and impact for their money.

The idea sounds simple enough and Lindsay Boswell, chief executive at the Institute of Fundraising, heartily endorses it as a "simple but powerful idea that initially sounds like a bit of a no-brainer".

"It's good to see an innovative example of fundraising that avoids duplication and that creates a streamlined approach to fundraising," Boswell says.

Yet despite the apparent logic of this approach, the history of collaborative charity fundraising efforts probably doesn't extend much further than the average fundraiser's right arm.

While many echoed Boswell's support, some greeted this "no-brainer" with a list of doubts, including the possibility of stakeholders falling out over unethical funding, and of rivalries developing when a corporate chooses to support one charity over the other club members.

Disability United, which the charities formed nine months ago while working together during the European Year for the Disabled in 2003, dismisses the concerns.

"Having tested the idea with a handful of companies over many months, we now know that it's viable and roadworthy," says Mark Bishop, head of corporate fundraising at Leonard Cheshire.

"Also, we found that when we approached companies as a group, they returned our calls quicker. It feels like the wind is firmly behind us after a lot of early tweaking."

The group's priorities are to make sure there are clear channels of communication between all four associates; that any decision to engage in a corporate relationship is unanimous; and to ensure that they respond as quickly as a quartet as they do individually.

Each charity will continue to run existing and imminent corporate partnerships individually, while trying to win fresh accounts together. Jim Swindells, head of fundraising at consortium partner Mencap, says: "When opportunities arise that we are unable to pursue solely, or where we feel a consortium approach would create more value, Disability United will step in because it can fulfil most fundraising briefs through its combined expertise and resources."

Bishop believes that by having individual members looking after various elements of the pitch process, there will be a pooling of resources that will save time.

He adds that Leonard Cheshire might typically employ two full-time staff for a month on prospecting, ordering and scouring of FTSE companies' CSR reports, to stand a chance of winning 'charity of the year' accounts before the charity actually presents its case.

But finding a formula to extract corporate gold, which accounts for 4.3 per cent of the charity sector's income, is not an exact science. According to James Kliffen, head of fundraising at Medecins Sans Frontieres, many corporates base their decisions on the opinion of a relatively small number of staff committed to their favourite causes.

Kliffen has reservations about Disability United. "What if a company is impressed, but wants to work with just one of the charities? Some corporates might only want to deal with one charity because of those few individuals who are particularly motivated to help. These people may resist some of the other charities' involvement."

Despite Kliffen's misgivings, he's open to persuasion on the concept.

"If it's an enormous success, we will think about it," he says. "But it would be incredibly difficult to do here because, apart from the Red Cross and Merlin, there aren't too many medical humanitarian aid agencies.

"If you've got organisations doing the same work with the same values, there is a good argument for working together but, generally, I'm not convinced that putting brands together simply to pool resources wouldn't quickly run into problems. If it's just about money and sticking a brand on it, then it's not for us," adds Kliffen.

Paul Amadi, director of fundraising at deafblind charity Sense, welcomes the idea of collaboration and thinks more clubs will launch. But he would like to know more before doing something similar.

"We would consider looking into it, but I'm not sure it would work for Sense," he says. "We would be anxious to work with complementary charities and target corporates, but what happens if one charity has an ethical problem with a company? We would also need to know that if each charity gave different levels of resources to a pitch, would they then receive a higher share?"

But what do corporates think? Abbey has a trust with a yearly budget of £1.7m and funds projects with up to £20,000, but it doesn't have a charity of the year. Charitable trust manager Alan Eagle thinks that collective bargaining would certainly allow charities to present a stronger case.

"We often hear from disability charities that claim they can combat a need, but which aren't going to deliver to other impaired users. With something like Disability United, that idea appears possible, so we would welcome the group as joined-up thinking that could cut across all disability causes, and it would probably be successful in receiving a larger donation."

Heavyweight donors the HBOS Foundation and Tesco, whose 'charity of the year' partnerships typically deliver more than £4m, could also bite.

This year, both have adopted Help the Hospices - the national charity for hospice care that, among other services, acts as a fundraising umbrella for local charities, and which is possibly the closest thing to Disability United - as their charity of the year.

Might Disability United lend its brand to fundraise to individuals? The group stopped short of ruling it out, but the Institute's Boswell believes it could work.

"In general, the public favour charities working together. But one area of confusion that would need addressing is how each charity builds their unique selling point into the group's communications."

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