22/01/2013 08:20 GMT | Updated 23/03/2013 05:12 GMT

On Considering Collaboration

Limited resources, constant fundraising, and passionate but over-worked teams - charities share many common features. But at the core of everything they do, is the mission to drive positive social change and deliver the best possible service for the people they exist to support. As dwindling funds meet a growing demand for services, many charities are facing a real battle to keep afloat.

In these straightened times, joining forces - sharing people, expertise, operating models and ambition - with another organisation can significantly improve a charity's chance of survival. Working in partnership also has the potential to reduce inefficiencies and unnecessary duplication across the charity sector, something we know is a concern for the public.

Now charities are getting an extra kick down the collaborative road, with the proliferation of payment by results (PbR) contracts. The Work Programme is well under way and the Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is set to role PbR out big time in the criminal justice system. Local councils are also looking to base contracts on PbR terms, for example, across children's and environmental services. Last year, NPC's report When the going gets tough found that many charities, particularly small- and medium-sized ones, struggle to pitch for these contracts, as PbR pays in arrears and brings a lot of risk. So for charities that depend upon government commissioners for survival, looking to collaborate with other organisations is vital.

However, working in collaboration is not easy, and not all charities are willing or able to embrace it. There is a fine line to tread to protect reputation, intellectual property and overcome differences. Existing resources offer guidance on how to go about setting out a formal partnership, for example by NCVO. To build on this, NPC and Impetus Trust have published Collaborating for impact, a new report looking at some of the preconditions for collaborative success:

(1) Keeping the focus on beneficiaries: any collaboration should fit clearly into the charities' strategy on getting the best possible outcomes for the people that they exist to help.

(2) Understanding the financial implications: as agreements and contracts grow in complexity, charities need to invest in understanding their costs and cash-flow to ensure that collaboration is viable and finances will not put a strain on the partnership.

(3) Understanding and demonstrating impact: evidence of impact attracts potential partners and offers reassurance around the quality of organisations' work.

(4) Treating organisational culture as key to success: certain charity habits--such as the tendency to fiercely defend independence--can be a barrier to effective collaboration. Here trust is key, and the focus on beneficiaries should cut through cultural concerns over credit, competition and sovereignty.

These may seem to follow common sense, but many charities do not take the time to sit down and have a long hard think about such crucial factors. Instead, they charge ahead with collaborations, facing difficulties further down the line. This is a shame, and potentially a huge waste both for them and for those they are trying to help .

So the message we are trying to get out there with Collaborating for impact is that yes, collaboration, working together, and building partnerships can often be the best way to help those most in need. But it takes effort and consideration to make it work, and it's better to have these conversations now rather than later, when it may be too late.