Opinion: Beating big business at its own game

Nick Cater, a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk

Do you do enough for charity? Of course - you work all hours for one charity, volunteer for a second, donate regularly and tax-efficiently through payroll giving to a third, and buy goats from Oxfam and fair trade coffee from a farmers' self-help group in Nicaragua.

But what about ensuring that your own charity's procurement policies offer fellow charities, social enterprises and producer co-operatives at least an even chance of getting your business?

Today, there can hardly be a charity need, from advice on management to travel, print, communications or food and drink for conferences, that a non-profit enterprise isn't eager to meet. If there are gaps, there are probably charities with existing capabilities that could fill them and earn an income.

Although protectionism is quite rightly a dirty word, surely the voluntary sector should look after its own by making an effort to seek out suppliers that are charities, or ensuring that would-be non-profit vendors know how and where to approach their colleagues for business.

If the Government finds charities so efficient, cost-effective and reliable that millions in public contracts must come their way, the new outsourced suppliers can surely make full use of voluntary sector subcontractors - but don't expect charities to work for less than cost.

Obviously, any charity must have purchasing procedures that ensure it acts transparently and secures best value. But the efforts being made to help charities pitch for public contracts could be extended to foster charity-to-charity trading, with advice, training and clear language for tenders and contracts.

Given the poor performance of fundraising in getting a bigger slice of an expanding economy, the voluntary sector needs to conserve its resources.

Charity-to-charity business is no guarantee that a contract will be cheaper, but the likely lack of unrecoverable VAT does offer a 17.5 per cent saving on usual company prices, even before factoring in profits and costly overheads.

Why should a private sector that gives almost nothing to charities profit from them?

A bidding charity's competitive edge ought to extend to being more understanding about your needs than a firm that just wants your money. And let's hope that every charity would offer high-quality services or products, together with an ethical dimension in its sourcing, good standards in employment and excellent environmental care.

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