In the third report by Third Sector into voluntary sector relationships, Patrick McCurry discovers that collaboration between charities is, in the main, a positive and successful experience that need not lead to merger.
Improving services and increasing impact - rather than cutting costs - are the main reasons behind decisions by charities to enter into partnerships with other charities, according to Third Sector's latest research. Charities with experience of joint working are highly satisfied with the process, with more than eight out of 10 describing it as "positive". Donors and funders are also supportive, they say.
But many voluntary organisations underestimate the time it takes to set up partnerships and many fail to have a formal written agreement in place.
It also appears that the sector is split over whether joint working is, or should be, the first step towards merger. About a third of the respondents agreed that partnerships were a route to possible mergers, but half disagreed with the proposition.
The survey, which was carried out by research group nfpSynergy in association with the NCVO's Collaborative Working Unit, found that nine out of 10 charities were involved in some kind of partnership with another charity.
Compared with the 22 per cent figure cited in a 2003 Charity Commission survey, this represents a 69-point leap. But, according to nfpSynergy co-founder Joe Saxton, the actual increase may be less marked. "It is likely that charities involved in joint working were more interested in taking part in the research," he says.
Saxton adds that he is "surprised and disappointed" at the finding that cost cutting is not a major reason for partnerships, given the potential for savings in the sector. Only 4 per cent of respondents said cost cutting was the most common reason for partnerships, compared with 40 per cent in the Charity Commission's 2003 research. Our research shows that, in 2005, the most common reasons for joint working were improving services and increasing impact.
These findings suggest that partnerships such as the amalgamation of IT functions at the NSPCC and the Children's Society, which is expected to save £800,000 a year, are relatively few and far between. Saxton says: "There has been a lot of talk about how sharing back-office systems can help charities cut costs - I'm disappointed that so few seem to be going down this road."
Chris Hanvey, director of operations at Barnardo's, agrees that partnerships have great potential to save charities money: "For us, cutting costs is probably the main aim of joint working - there is an increasing pressure, from the public and grant-making trusts, to keep costs down." He adds that charities need to demonstrate that they are doing their best to control costs through collaborative working.
Given the increasing popularity of joint working, charity staff will take comfort from the fact that the research found only 3 per cent of charities had made redundancies as a result of partnerships. This, argues Isobel Booth, information officer at the NCVO Collaborative Working Unit, could be because joint working does not necessarily reduce workload. "If it's enabling a charity to expand into a new geographical area, it might even mean more staff," she says.
Booth says she was particularly happy about the enthusiasm expressed for partnerships and the diversity of different kinds of joint working.
"It is clear that partnerships can vary a great deal in terms of the degree of involvement," she adds.
Despite the enthusiasm, says Booth, it is clear from the survey that the time and energy needed for getting a partnership off the ground often takes charities by surprise - 60 per cent of charities said the process took longer than they expected. "Although partnerships provide long-term benefits, they are time-consuming in the short term," she says.
Hanvey says partnerships that involve the statutory sector are even more time-consuming to set up. He points to a children's services project in Yorkshire, which Barnardo's runs with Macmillan but which is also funded by statutory agencies. "It has seven or eight funding streams, and that complexity means it can take time to set up," he says.
Given the difficulties involved in setting up partnerships, it is heartening that 71 per cent of charities said donors and funders were supportive of collaborative working. "The role of grant-making trusts is important for encouraging partnership working," says Hanvey.
However, only 15 per cent of respondents said they always had a formal written agreement in place when entering into a partnership - a figure that concerns Saxton. "Why would you take the risk of investing significant resources in a project without having a clear, written agreement about the aims of the project and how it will operate?" he asks. "It's hard to imagine a charity entering a partnership with the statutory sector and not having a formal agreement." Saxton admits that he can understand the lack of a formal agreement when it comes to campaigning partnerships, but stresses that most of the partnerships discussed in the research were focused on services.
On whether joint working is the first step towards merger, opinion was split - according to Booth, merger is still an extremely sensitive subject with many charities. "We run collaborative working seminars, and some delegates have said their charities wouldn't let them come if the events were called 'collaborative working and merger' seminars," she says. "The idea of mergers is still something that worries a lot of trustees and volunteers."
Peter Cardy, chief executive of Macmillan Cancer Relief, is particularly sceptical of the value of mergers in the sector. He argues that other forms of partnership can provide benefits without the necessity for full merger.
"We are unusual in doing most of our work through partner organisations - most in the statutory sector, and some in the voluntary and private sectors," he says. "We are currently in two major strategic alliances, with Crossroads and the Citizens Advice Bureau, with which there is no prospect or rationale for merger. Quite simply, our expertise is complementary and our audiences overlap."
Another issue that can be tricky is when a larger charity partners with smaller organisations. Jackie Nunns, chief executive of educational and training charity the Trojans Scheme, says: "For a while, we expended a lot of energy on smaller charities. In our view, however, this created an expectation that we would always fulfil an 'older sibling' role."
She says the charity still performs this role for smaller charities, but no longer "rescues" them. "We will only do business with charities that we are confident will meet their contractual obligations," she says.
"We avoid local authority-led voluntary sector partnerships because of the confusion."
Third Sector's research partners were the Collaborative Working Unit at the NCVO (www.ncvo-vol.org.uk/collaborate) and nfpSynergy (see www.nfpsynergy.net)
- 49% are involved in partnerships between several charities, and 44 per cent mainly have relationships with one other charity - 77% partner with other charities in the same cause area - 23% partner with charities smaller than themselves - 43% always or usually have a formal agreement governing their partnerships ]]>
WHAT THEY SAID
'As a relative newcomer to the sector, I would like to see more collaboration for the good of the cause and to create more efficiency in fundraising and service delivery' - Jon Bodenham, marketing director, PDSA
'We have at times been astounded at the "toys out of the pram" and "I'll play only if it's to my rules" attitudes of some potential partners. We had one successful partnership where, after it finished, none of the follow-up media coverage generated by the partner mentioned us' - Anonymous
'Although we share many values with animal welfare charities, it is surprising how little collaborative work goes on. We have at times met with a degree of resistance to working together, which suggests there is a degree of professional jealousy among organisations' - Olliver Southgate, director of resources, Compassion in World Farming Trust
'The key is that partners agree on the vision and purpose of the partnership and that expectations are clear from the start' - Marjan Companjen, communications and project manager, Mission Aviation Fellowship
The findings were split roughly half and half between charities that said their partnerships were with one other charity and those that had joint working with several other charities.
There was similar diversity when it came to who a charity's partners were, with one in five partnering charities of similar size, a similar proportion working with smaller or larger organisations and 45 per cent saying there was no clear pattern.
However, 79 per cent said most of their charity partners came from the same cause or sub-sector. This is probably because informal contacts that can lead to partnership are likely to be developed at conferences or events attended by like-minded organisations.
- Reasons for partnership
The motives for joint working were largely service-driven rather than to cut costs. Among the reasons given were:
When asked about the motivations behind joint working, 18 per cent said to deliver better services and 15 per cent to avoid duplication of services.
But 9 per cent said it was to carry out joint campaigning.
- Support for partnerships
There is significant support for partnerships, both within the charities and among their supporters, although this support may not extend to mergers.
Seven out of 10 charities said their donors and funders were supportive of partnerships and 82 per cent disagreed with the statement that working with other charities was seen as controversial and fraught with risks.
However, although 29 per cent agreed that partnerships were a route to possible mergers, 50 per cent disagreed with this view.
- 137 charities responded to a survey sent to Third Sector readers and the NCVO's collaborative working unit database. Figures may not add up to 100 per cent as a result of rounding.