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Building the case for innovative collaboration between startups and the third sector

Why and how do (or don't) startups and third sector organisations work together? What are the ingredients for successful collaboration and what are common barriers? These are some of the questions we will try to uncover in a new collaborative research project led by Nesta and Save the Children aimed at creating a better understanding of this space and encouraging innovative collaboration for mutual impact.

Following some scoping roundtables, we are working closely with an excellent steering group with representatives from ACEVO, Bond, CAST, the Department for International Development, Good Innovation, ImpactShakers, NCVO, Save the Children, and UNICEF Innovation - and are now opening a wider call for evidence to identify best practices.

Click here to suggest a case study or read on to learn more about the project.

What are we doing?

Over the next six months, we will be exploring the world of startups working with the third sector*. We will gather first-hand insights in how they collaborate through new, innovative types of engagement for mutual benefit and impact. We want to learn what works and what doesn’t work, focusing on perceived benefits and potential barriers on the road to successful collaboration. The lessons learned, alongside a synopsis of the literature on wider trends in innovation and collaboration, will be translated into practical insights that make the case for innovative collaboration between startups and non-profit organisations.

*With the third sector we refer to organisations that are neither public nor private sector. We realise there is a lack of definitional consensus and other terms might be preferred by some (e.g. voluntary sector or civil society), but for the purpose of consistency we speak about the third sector. Our initial scope will include organisations with an annual income of £100k+ and for-profit startups. We are interested in examples from around the world.

Why are we doing this?

There is an increasing pressure for innovation in the third sector, with many charity professionals being concerned about keeping up with the pace of technology change, and only a minority thinking that their organisational structure is “fit for the future”. Many accept that innovation is needed to attract alternative funding streams, and to deliver services in a different way.

At the same time, startups are seeking paths to scale, and keen to access the insight, networks and capabilities that larger, established organisations can offer. In the private sector, such partnerships have become much more common in recent years: there has been a significant change in the number of large corporates who consider working with startups as a core part of their innovation strategy – as we have been examining for several years through our Startup Europe Partnership. However, examples of (successful) innovative collaboration between the third sector and startups are still relatively rare, although we are seeing more and more “social” businesses with ambitions to operate at scale (e.g. see ScaleUp Institute’s research around social scaleups).

We believe that collaborations between third sector organisations and startups can offer clear mutual benefit. However, there is currently a lack of awareness about what works, an absence of analytical tools and frameworks through which to understand this topic, and a clear need for more evidence and examples of good practice.

Want to get involved?

We are looking for examples of innovative collaboration between startups and the third sector. This may include – but is not limited to – incubator or accelerator programmes, events or challenges, product co-development, investment, acquisition or procurement.

Ideally we want to gather examples from a range of organisations that vary in size and type, but we are primarily looking for examples involving third-sector organisations with an annual income of >£100k, and for-profit startups. We will look internationally for examples of best practice. We are specifically interested in the experiences of:

  • Third sector organisations that are working with / have worked with startups in innovative collaborations (successfully or unsuccessfully), or have tried to do so but failed; or who are actively experimenting with new ways to involve startups or are incorporating this in their strategy.
  • Startups that are collaborating with / have collaborated (successfully or unsuccessfully) with third sector organisations for various purposes; or that are actively targeting third sector organisations for partnerships.

Suggestions for case studies and other ideas can be submitted here.

Author

Denise Van Blitterswijk

Denise Van Blitterswijk

Denise Van Blitterswijk

Senior Policy Advisor, New Technology & Startup Research

Denise carries out research projects that inform startup and entrepreneurship policy across Europe.

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Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Head of New Technology & Startup Research

Chris leads Nesta's research interests into how startups and new technologies can drive economic growth, and what this means for businesses, intermediaries and for the government.

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Charlotte Reypens

Charlotte Reypens

Charlotte Reypens

Senior Policy Researcher (Startups & Entrepreneurship), New Technology & Startups

Charlotte carries out research projects to understand how startups and entrepreneurship can be supported across Europe.

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