In 2018 NCVO, ACEVO and Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales launched a project to address competition and collaboration between voluntary organisations and social enterprises of different sizes. The project has focused on organisations working within the context of the competitive commissioning environment. By building awareness and highlighting good practice, this project aims to encourage organisations to work in a more collaborative way.
This final report includes the findings from research and engagement activities, and outlines considerations for organisations seeking to work in a more collaborative way. While this project has focused on organisations delivering commissioned public services, we think this report contains reflections that are useful for all charities. It follows an interim report which was published at the beginning of 2020.
Why this work matters
No single organisation can do everything. A variety of thriving charities working together is vital to support communities and achieve systemic change, now and in the future. Communities are experiencing more complex issues as a result of a decade of austerity, and there has been a failure to address entrenched issues and inequalities. The pandemic has only exacerbated these issues. Charities will be more impactful if they work together to support people to access a variety of support, and to tackle societal problems from loneliness to poverty.
We also know charities are at their best when they ‘work with’ rather than ‘do to’ the people they serve. To achieve this charities need to focus on partnership working with communities and people with lived experience, prioritising impact over organisational interests.
Working collaboratively, especially with charities that reflect their communities, can empower people who use services. This ensures the people and communities can shape their own services, choose the support that is right for them, and participate locally. To shift power to communities, we need a diverse ecosystem of organisations of all types and sizes to play their part.
There are examples of charities already working in this way, but before the pandemic hit many charities described pervasive competition and distrust threatening their ability to achieve their mission, their financial sustainability, and relationships with other organisations. Charities have told us competitive behaviours and poor partnership working has a negative impact on communities, organisations and the sector.
Many good organisations, and particularly those that are ‘of’ marginalised communities, are being forced to close or scale back. This is resulting in “disillusioned disadvantaged communities” and people losing the relationships, support and representation they need. Competition between charities has also limited the sharing of ideas, joined up working and innovation.
Competition stops organisations from sharing ideas. It also hinders the support that different community groups can give to individuals. In a competitive environment, organisations tend to build a wall around what they do which can hinder any added value that another organisation can offer.
While this project was launched before the pandemic hit, collaboration is more important now than ever. In many ways the pandemic has demonstrated the value of collaboration, and the importance of viewing other organisations as partners rather than a threat. We have seen charities pull together at a local level to support communities, sharing resources and staff, and breaking down boundaries between organisations. We have heard of larger organisations creating funds to support local organisations, and charities redeploying their staff to other organisations in need of more capacity.
New groups and organisations have emerged to meet changing needs, whereas others have paused or scaled back types of activity to adhere to government guidance. While many charities have adapted their existing work to covid, others have explored new avenues sometimes moving far away from their original mission. As covid specific funding dwindles and local authorities experience increased financial pressure, how will charities relate to one another? Will these new groups retract or seek to sustain their work? Will existing charities seek to work with them?
In times of crisis, it can be tempting to look inwards and focus on organisational survival. Collaboration may feel harder as organisations fear for their sustainability and survival, but it is more important than ever to work with others to focus on collective impact and serving communities as the challenges those communities face also rise.
There are countless examples of charities already working with others to deliver their mission, recognising the difference between impact and increasing market share or organisational size. It is imperative for all organisations to consider their impact on other organisations, and the impact this has on the people they serve. However, those with more power (for example, influence, resource, opportunity to act) have a greater responsibility.
This is not just a matter of avoiding harming other organisations. It is crucial we actively create an environment that ensures a range of good organisations can serve the communities they work with.
We approach this work with the belief that there has to be a variety of organisations of all types and sizes working together and thriving in order to achieve change and tackle complex issues. There can be advantages and disadvantages that correlate to the size of an organisation, although there will always be exceptions to this. We do not subscribe to a binary position that sees bigger organisations as ‘bad’ and smaller organisations as ‘good’, or vice versa. When we talk about ‘larger’ and ‘smaller’ organisations we are attempting to address the imbalance of resource, influence and power between organisations of different sizes. We do not seek to blame or disparage any particular group or type of organisation.
Commissioning needs to change, and various initiatives are paving the way for alternative approaches, but there are also ways in which organisations can behave differently in the current system to improve collaboration. While commissioning and procurement practice hasn’t been the focus of this project, we are clear in our broader influencing work that commissioning and procurement practice needs to change to support charities to deliver high quality, sustainable services so that people can access the support they need, when they need it. Until better commissioning approaches are adopted, this project demonstrates the ways organisations can push for this change, and work in a more collaborative way within the current system. While this project has focused on organisations involved in competitive tendering, we recognise that organisations experience significant competition for funding from trusts and foundations, donations and corporate partnerships as well as competition for volunteer recruitment.
Organisations are clear that collaborative working has several benefits, but we understand that sometimes partnership working might not be the right choice. While we would encourage formal and informal collaborative behaviours, and the exploration of partnership opportunities, we are not suggesting that all organisations should, for example, deliver contracts together. Organisations should be discerning about who they collaborate with and how. More collaboration would be a positive shift for the sector, but quality is as important as quantity.
While some organisations seem to be more advanced in taking a collaborative approach, no organisation is perfect. Even the most collaborative organisations make mistakes. What matters is that they reflect on what has gone wrong, take responsibility and learn from it.
Smaller organisations find it particularly hard to bounce back from negative behaviour from other organisations and poor commissioning practice, but we recognise that the current environment is challenging for the whole voluntary sector. Charities of all sizes express some very similar frustrations with competition, collaboration and commissioning. These shared challenges should unite rather than divide the sector.
Methods and process
The findings and considerations for practice within this report are based on significant engagement with organisations across the voluntary sector.
The desk-based research we conducted at the beginning of this project drew out a significant amount of evidence of charities’ experiences of commissioning and procurement, and partnership working with government or the public sector. Academic literature has often focused on the barriers small and medium-sized organisations face in commissioning and procurement processes, highlighting the advantages of larger organisations. Research has explored relationships between organisations involved in commissioning, noting that charities are in a constant state of flux between collaborating or competing with other organisations.
Sector reports have further explored the issue of competition between charities. Research commissioned by Lloyds Bank Foundation found that small and medium-sized charities were experiencing increased competition for funding, with several organisations losing out on funding to national charities. This research also found that small and medium-sized organisations are often wary of collaborating with larger, national organisations, citing unsustainable payment models, concerns about losing control and identity, or the appropriation of ideas. The Civil Society Futures inquiry exposed deep concern about competition and self-interest in the fabric of our communities, as well as between charities.
This review indicated a need to further explore experiences and drivers of collaboration and competition between organisations. In particular, it identified a lack of research on the perspectives of larger organisations and the internal factors that help or hinder organisations to take a collaborative approach in the context of commissioning.
Our subsequent research and engagement activities have included the following:
- A call for evidence to understand broad experiences of competition and collaboration, yielding almost 100 responses.
- 18 in-depth qualitative interviews, particularly with larger organisations, to understand their approach to partnership and internal ways of working.
- Desk based research and discussions with organisations to develop case studies to showcase collaborative practice and learning.
- A series of local events, particularly engaging smaller local organisations, to test emerging findings and understand their experiences.
- Workshops with CEOs of larger organisations and individuals from infrastructure bodies across the sector.
- Feedback via email on the emerging findings and considerations included in the interim report.
- Engaging with a steering group and an advisory group, made up of individuals from a variety of organisations.
It is important to remember that we have asked individuals to tell us about their experiences and perceptions of competition and collaboration in the sector. Some individuals have chosen to participate as representatives of their organisations, whereas others have spoken more freely about their experiences in the sector over time.
While we have spoken to the partners of organisations we feature as case studies, we have not verified the responses of participants in the call for evidence, interviews or workshops. There are therefore limitations to this data, but we think these perceptions can give an indication of practice in the sector. This data can also help us to understand the attitudes and cultures that shape practice.
Definitions and concepts
Collaboration can exist across a spectrum of competition to partnership, and there can be good and bad practice across that spectrum. There are examples of partnerships that treat organisations unfairly, and of capacity building that supports smaller organisations to compete with others. This variety has been recognised by those who have engaged with this project: 'I think, generally, that the blanket "partnerships are Good" or "competition is Good" statements are unhelpful, as the true situation is almost always more sophisticated and nuanced than that'.
The project focuses on competition and collaboration with regards to competitive tendering for contracts, but collaboration doesn’t have to be limited to delivering contracts in partnership. Collaboration can also range from advocating on behalf of other organisations, to informally sharing resources and learning.
In this project we have not defined what a small or large organisation is and have preferred to talk about ‘smaller’ and ‘larger’ organisations. There are several reasons for this.
Organisations of all sizes describe negative experiences of working with organisations larger than theirs. Poor collaboration between organisations of different sizes is not about whether they are over or under a certain level of income or how many staff they employ. This issue is size in relation to other organisations, and the resulting power imbalance.
An organisation may lack power when meeting with a commissioner but may have power when sitting around a table with representatives from smaller organisations. While smaller organisations will find it harder to survive these challenging experiences, these are often shared experiences that should unite rather than divide the sector.
People don’t use set size categories to define or talk about their organisation. Throughout this project several medium and large organisations refer to themselves as small and local. One large organisation we heard from referred to themselves as small, medium and large. This could be because people define their organisations in relation to others in a ‘pond’, or because they have grown quickly and still retain a memory of being smaller. One major organisation told us; 'We’re often seen as a big organisation, but in some local areas where we work, we are smaller than the local charities and local organisations'.
We also recognise that while local organisations are more likely to be smaller, smaller doesn’t always mean local. There are small national organisations, and large organisations at a local and regional level. Larger organisations can have a very strong local presence, as articulated by one super major organisation: 'Smaller organisations tend to be more locally focused…not that we are not. I have to say the argument around big versus small irritates me because you can have big organisations who are absolutely embedded and very, very locally focused where all the staff…are local people who have worked there for many years. And I don't see a big difference between that and an organisation whose head office happens to be in town and the board are local.'
Throughout this project participants have referenced power, and we have talked about ‘power sharing’ and ‘power imbalances’. At a very basic level power is an ability or capacity to do something, or direct or influence the behaviours of others or events. Imbalances occur when individuals or organisations have different levels of power. Organisations can benefit from the power and privilege individuals bring, but also have power in their own right. Individuals can also benefit from the power of the organisation they work for, but individuals may not feel empowered if, for example, they do not have a lot of autonomy in their role.
Psychologists have described different types of power individuals can hold. Examples include power that stems from
- a person’s high level of skill and knowledge
- a belief that a person has the formal right to make demands and expect others to comply
- a person’s ability to control the information others need to accomplish something.
Individuals may have more power if they hold privilege - advantages that a person can inherit or accumulate over time. Individuals may be advantaged, for example, as a result of being white, middle or upper class, more educated, or non-disabled in a society that values those characteristics. Individual power and privilege can have an impact on relationships in partnership development, especially if those with power don’t recognise and don’t try to level the playing field.
There are different ways in which organisations might have power, including but not limited to:
- size, income and level of reserves
- the level of risk they can take on
- the privilege of staff
- connections and influence
- brand and reputation
- institutional knowledge.
The significance of these advantages may depend on the context and whether organisations have an opportunity to use it, for example, if a funding opportunity is limited to organisations over or under a certain income level. Different types and sizes of organisations can have power, and those with more power have a greater responsibility to share it. It can be helpful for individuals to consider what power their organisation might have compared to others, and for organisations to do this at a strategic level.
NCVO, ACEVO and LBFEW (2018), Rebalancing the Relationship: Emerging findings and draft recommendations.
These organisations are set up and controlled by people who are ‘of’ the community or group they serve. They are different to organisation set up by people ‘for’ a group or community they are not from.
NSUN (2019), Survey results of user-led groups.
Ellis Paine, A. and Macmillan, R. (2019) Telling tales of commissioning: insights from a qualitative longitudinal study of third sector organisations.
Drayson, C., Baker, L. and Rees, J. (2018) The value of small: In-depth research into the distinctive contribution, value and experiences of small and medium-sized charities in England and Wales.
Civil Society Futures: The independent inquiry (2018) Civil Society in England: Its current state and future opportunity.
NCVO (2020) UK Civil Society Almanac. Smaller voluntary organisations are more likely to work locally. The vast majority of micro (78%) and small organisations (77%) do so, compared to just 9% of super-major organisations.
NCVO (2020) UK Civil Society Almanac.