The Net works
Charities inhabit a complex space in civil society. They rely on the generosity of the public and the attention of funding bodies, but want to be independent enough to make the right decisions for their beneficiaries. They know that there is value in working with others but historically mistrust the corporate sector and see each other as competition for funding.
On top of this, there is an intense scrutiny on how funds are spent, who they accept money from and increasing judgement about how they raise money. Considering all of these factors, it is no wonder charities think twice about venturing to explore their networks for new collaborations and resources.
The Open Innovation Programme set out to challenge this position, aiming to encourage more productive, open partnerships between charities and other sectors. But there are very real obstacles. The large national charities on the programme often had very well resourced in-house functions allowing them to feel quite comfortable about working independently with a track record of success in launching new projects without partners. There was no clear drive to search for organisations to share risk and reward with others, or an impetus to build their networks and look beyond their own organisation for ideas. The risk to brand or instinct to protect donors often overrides the uncertain potential of outcomes that could be gained through working in partnership.
Networks can cause ideas to connect and cross-pollinate to form more innovative solutions to problems
Within the programme, the example of shared risk and reward that most resonated with me came from WWF and Scope who partnered on a direct marketing fundraising project. Each charity invited its own donors to give to the other organisation with the aim of better understanding and tapping into philanthropic behaviours. Both organisations agreed that this remarkable partnership would have been very difficult between charities in the same sectors and without the encouragement of the Cabinet Office and the Nesta support programme.
But if we are to see more collaboration, what lessons can we take from the charities who took part in the Open Innovation Programme? Well, one of the most valuable insights from the programme was the message from the charities themselves, that they would welcome more to be done to support charities in developing stronger networks and increasing their confidence in working collaboratively across them.
Here’s a summary of their collective ideas for creating more effective partnerships going forward:
- Funding bodies were seen to have a useful bird’s eye view that might afford them the opportunity of instigating collaboration in their networks. This included brokering formal opportunities for collaboration and skill sharing across charities and enterprises by funders where a natural fit could be seen.
- Hosting a forum for discussion and networking of charities around shared problems. One of the interesting observations was that the group did not start their journey together clearly knowing the problems they wanted to focus on. Because charities were often internally focused, groups saw value in putting a spotlight on how networks could be used to develop great collaborative projects.
- Potential was seen in developing opportunities for exchange, where staff from different sector charities are placed in each other’s organisations or in private sector organisations to gain new insight and develop their networks. They saw this as a great opportunity to build better bonds, break barriers and foster collaboration. An example of this happening already is with Legal & General, who have been taking part in a scheme called SMART where they place rising stars in trustee roles in charities. This builds the governance skills of their staff and networks them better across the charity sector, which is a crucial part of their CSR agenda.
- The charities reported that they would not have been as likely to ask their peers for advice and involvement if they were not part of the Open Innovation Programme. The funding process in itself brought charities together under one programme and supported them to innovate as a cohort rather than in isolation of each other, leading to much better networking, feeling less competitive and making more of the opportunity to share tips experiences and advice.
It also became clear that charities need to be braver about networking and working in partnership. Foodcycle recognised by the end of the programme that giving up control centrally forced them to turn to broader networks that lead to more insight and opportunity for their project. There was agreement that setting KPIs for networking and collaboration would help to loosen central control and change processes that fostered isolating behaviour.
Networks can cause ideas to connect and cross-pollinate to form more innovative solutions to problems. They can also lead to finding the ‘missing puzzle piece’ that may make an impossible project possible. But networking and brokering needs to be gently facilitated in the charity sector, because acting alone, there is not enough impetus for individual organisations to overcome perceived risks, and make it happen.
Through the programme, we worked with the National Trust, who reported that working as part of a cohort helped them to really experience and see the practical value of using networks and working in collaboration. Their experience is likely to impact upon the way those teams work, but there needs to be higher expectation of collaboration by donors and charity support bodies to encourage a wider movement towards collaboration across the sector.
Learning by doing and connecting with peers is a powerful way of exposing people to new ways of working; it was one of the things that charities we worked with reported as being most rewarding. The seeming simple act of encouraging network expansion across the sector provides a real opportunity to raise levels of readiness for open innovation within charities of all sizes.