From competition to collaboration: what is the role of larger charities in rebalancing the relationship

Shelter CEO Polly Neate comments on the situation as it stands, and the change we might want to see.

Earlier this year the Rebalancing the Relationship project was launched to improve the frequency, effectiveness and spirit of partnership between larger and smaller charities and social enterprises, particularly within the context of a competitive commissioning and procurement environment. While many organisations have been open and reflective about what they do well and what could improve, others have understandably been more anxious.

Before I get nice and explain the reasons why large charities should get involved, let me just get out of the way the fact that statements like “it’s not all of us”, as a feminist remind me of the whole “not all men” phenomenon. It may not be you or your organisation; you may be doing great work. But if you know that others could be doing better then you should be focused on allyship over personal exoneration.

There is a brilliant quote about privilege from – I think but do correct me – an unknown source: “When you are accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.” Or perhaps even more pertinent, from Margaret Atwood: “A people that values its privileges above its principles soon loses both.”

Unless the future we want for the charity sector is a smaller number of very large, national charities, then it’s time to take a hard look at the relationship between charities of all sizes, and the impact those relationships have on our sector.

Charities give expression to people’s desire to help others, whether directly through employment or volunteering or indirectly through raising funds and awareness, campaigning, organising, activism. The single biggest threat to this role is the power of public sector contracts. But we, the charities who compete for those contracts, have given them that power and we can take at least some of it away if we choose.

The fact that you have the chance to compete for funds doesn’t mean you have to. The fact that you can reduce overheads by providing the same things over a large geographic area doesn’t mean it’s the best thing for everyone who needs support, or for every community they live in. One person’s gap in the market is another’s living and breathing organisation already filling that gap, albeit in a way that probably won’t win a competitive tender.

The women’s sector is often cited as an example of the destructive power of how local authority commissioning done badly can have a devastating impact on the women it is meant to support, often by inciting a competitive approach. And with good reason. I’ve seen women who survived domestic abuse, battled to have its very existence recognised, squatted a building to found a refuge, then grasped local authority Supporting People funding with relief. Over years they supported many survivors to safety and many of those through volunteering into work and then leadership in the refuge movement. And then saw their service packaged up as a “lot”, and lost out to a large “service provider” (hate that expression) in a competitive tender. Large charities and housing associations have even been known to partner with women’s organisations and then use their expertise to win contracts that effectively hoover up those supposed partners. The women’s sector is not alone in this.

So it’s timely that ACEVO, NCVO and Lloyd’s Bank Foundation have set up the Rebalancing the Relationship project. While we have heard about practices that make a difficult environment impossible for good smaller and even medium-sized organisations, we have also heard from larger organisations who are trying to be bold in the way they support and advocate for smaller partners.  

The project needs to hear from charities of all sizes about the reality of competing and collaborating to deliver services in this environment. We need to hear about the financial pressures, the board expectations, the desire to continue the valuable research and campaigning that’s driven by large service delivery operations, the wealth of experience generated by services that span populations and geographies, the benefits and drawbacks that come with economies of scale. We want all voices to participate but we especially want those who are used to being heard to do more listening.

And don’t fear that commissioners will be made the enemy. They are not. But they are also not our primary customers as charities, despite the fact that they have power in the market when our beneficiaries do not. Commissioners should be partners in creating a system that responds to what people need and honours the values, culture and drive for change that our sector should embody.

There’s more at stake here than any one organisation. We should not be handing power over the future shape of our sector to commissioners. Only with larger and smaller charities equally valued, working together will we ever change that.

To gather evidence for this project NCVO and ACEVO have held a call for evidence and conducted a number of interviews. Over the next few months, we will be finding other ways to engage with charities of all shapes and sizes, keep an eye on NCVO’s website for updates, or register your interest in receiving updates with Maisie Hulbert.

Photo by Charles 🇵🇭 on Unsplash

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