OPINION: Alliances can grow from the simplest idea

GERALDINE PEACOCK, chief executive of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association

About a year ago, I read a book by James Austin, professor of Social Enterprise at Harvard Business School, on strategic alliances between not-for-profit organisations and businesses in the US. Shortly afterwards, while visiting my Boston-based son, and motivated by what I'd read, I thought I'd chance it and ask for an hour of professor Austin's time.

He responded to my email, saying: "The calendar gods have smiled on us, do come by."

We had a fascinating discussion about UK voluntary organisations and what they could learn about new approaches to corporate partnerships.

A month later, it was my turn to receive an unusual request when professor Austin emailed asking if his staff could use Guide Dogs to develop a case study for its MBA programme.

The study examines three types of alliance which have benefited all the voluntary organisations involved and, most importantly, visually impaired people. For example, our alliances with Action for Blind People on the issue of hotels, and with the Winged Fellowship around holiday services, have guaranteed those services' futures, removing a financial deficit from Guide Dogs while developing the capacities of the other organisations.

Another alliance has involved working with social services departments to increase their range of services. We have used our funds to lever in additional local authority resources and, where possible, have also worked to support local voluntary groups to bid for the newly created service contracts.

Working jointly with charities whose aims are similar to our own can do us all good. And the alliances don't have to be based on service provision.

Setting up Vision 2020 UK as part of a consortium of visual impairment charities has provided our sub-sector with a unified and strengthened voice.

Harvard's research has had an interesting, and very welcome, effect.

The husband of one of Harvard's assistant professors works at consultants Booze Allen & Hamilton. He was interested in Guide Dogs and persuaded his British colleagues to contact us. They are now helping on a pro bono basis to build our strategy for commercial ventures.

One opportunistic email has lead to new alliances in the US. Those calendar gods really beamed.

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