From sharing to caring – collaborating our way through 2017

This blog first appeared on Third Sector on 24th January 2017.

If we are to meet the prime minister’s ambitions of a sharing society, then charities of all shapes and sizes must learn to collaborate more, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets.

Last year I highlighted how charitable foundations need to up our game in calling government out about how our country isn’t working for all. With politicians setting out their vision for a Trump, post Brexit world, what does this mean for the wider voluntary sector?

Walking past the statue of Oscar Wilde in London reminding those who pass “we are all in the gutter but some of us are looking at the stars” got me thinking.

His words seem an appropriate reflection for the sector. Last year charities spent a lot of time looking at our reflections in the metaphorical gutter as we came to terms with a changing fundraising landscape. It’s now more important than ever that we mobilise behind the plight of those we exist to support, who are literally, in the gutter.

It’s no secret that charities have been bearing the brunt of austerity for some time, particularly small, local charities. Rising and more complex demand for their specialist services comes at a time when grants have disappeared and as research we published showed public sector contracts become almost impossible to win.

It’s no secret that charities have been bearing the brunt of austerity for some time, particularly small, local charities.

Theresa May’s call for a “sharing society” should in some way be applauded. Even within our values driven voluntary sector, there are lessons for us to learn. Small charities have been telling us for some time that their experience of working with national charities, particularly around the delivery of public sector contracts, can be fraught with challenges.

While the small local charity brings a solid footprint, history of specialist support and working knowledge of the area that adds significant weight to the consortium bid, the reality can change once the contract has been awarded. Small charities report being sidelined when it comes to delivery or referrals leaving their finances decimated and testing their ability to survive.

We need better and meaningful collaboration between charities of different sizes that respect and value the varying skills and experience different organisations bring to the table. The reality is the people we’re trying to support lead complex and chaotic lives and they require joined up solutions.

We need better and meaningful collaboration between charities of different sizes

That means better collaboration amongst charities of all sizes that enable us to look at people’s lives holistically, not in isolation. Because when charities are given the space to collaborate they can be truly transformational.

One of our most popular offers of support for the charities we fund has been learning sets which bring like-minded local voluntary sector leaders together to share problems and solutions. They fizz.

I recently visited Co-Lab in Exeter which is a brilliant attempt to do just this. Run by Exeter CVS it brings together 30 different local organisations and projects under one roof, along with probation and health services, to provide joined up services to vulnerable people. The aspiration and ambition behind this is inspiring – tough as it will sometimes be to get it right.

It can be done. There are also good examples of large charities collaborating around common cause on shared issues: the Richmond Group of leading health charities or the New Beginnings Fund of funders supporting refugees. And just the other day, large and small charities in Birmingham came together to voice their concerns about the impact of cuts on vulnerable people.

What if this was the rule, not the exception?

Imagine the difference we could make if large national charities set aside competitive instincts and united with their small but equally important partners in the interests of beneficiaries?

If we don’t work together to set out our vision for a sharing society who will?

I’m interested in your thoughts. Tweet me @PaulStreets_ and tell me what you think.

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