Boosting startup collaboration in the third sector

In July 2020, Nesta and Save the Children UK launched Better Together, the first report of its kind to describe how startups and the third sector can collaborate for stronger impact. In this blog, we share some of our learnings since the start of this project and we explore potential next steps to support more collaboration between startups and the third sector.

The report was a collective learning journey with input from over 80 experts. We unravelled why and how startups and the third sector may work together, and what the barriers are that are holding them back. We hope that the report is only a starting point and will spark more conversations and activities in this space.

If you are interested in getting involved, please join this Linkedin Group or get in touch!

What did we learn?

We were fortunate to have an excellent steering group to help us shape the research. It brought together members of nine organisations: UNICEF Innovation, the Department for International Development (DFID), ACEVO, NCVO, Bond UK, Good Innovation, Impact Shakers, CAST Centre for the Acceleration of Social Technology and Save the Children UK. When we asked the steering group to reflect on key takeaways from the project, two things stood out:

  1. No pain, no gain. The topic of startup collaboration with the third sector was met with unanimous enthusiasm. There was a consensus that more widespread cooperation between the third sector and startups would benefit both sides. However, we knew there are deep-rooted barriers in the third sector that are holding innovative collaborations back. We spent a lot of time disentangling these barriers and their root causes, and writing about them took up a big chunk of the report (see section 3: why aren’t we seeing more of this?). But despite the barriers, the cases we describe in the report – including examples from Alzheimer’s Society, Friends of the Earth and Versus Arthritis – show that collaboration can be done if organisations figure out how to work together effectively. We hope that these cases inspire others to kickstart more partnerships.
  2. It takes two to tango. Effective collaboration between the third sector and startups will require both sides to adjust their traditional ways of working. Startups are advised to demonstrate commitment to what the third sector is aiming to achieve and emphasise how their offering fits with the third sector’s mission and values. Third sector organisations will need to adopt more commercial thinking and take a “prototyping and testing” approach to developing new solutions. To help third sector organisations and startups adjust, the report features checklists for both sides of actions to take when preparing for, designing and carrying out the collaboration.

Where next?

We hope that the report offers a useful guide for third sector organisations and startups to begin their collaborative journeys. But more can be done to facilitate collaboration on both sides. We are exploring the following four options. If you wish to get involved in any of them, get in touch!

  1. A community of practice. We believe a strong community of third sector practitioners and startups could help establish connections and promote good practice. As a starting point, we have created a Linkedin group to bring together anyone with interest in the topic. But a community of practice requires dedicated investment and facilitation to ensure meaningful engagement and interactions. Such a facilitating role could be taken up by organisations that offer third-party support to third sector organisations or startups.
  2. Toolkits and workshops. The frameworks, checklists and case studies featured in the report could be translated into practical toolkits and workshops to prepare startups and third sector organisations for collaboration. In the coming months, we will share our findings in webinars for civil society leaders (organised by ACEVO) and startups (organised by Impact Shakers). It would be valuable to further develop this into a free-to-download online toolkit or course, similar to the Touchpaper or Corship initiatives to support startup collaboration in the corporate sector.
  3. Piloting an accelerator programme. Accelerators programmes help startups through the fragile stages of growth, by offering intense support usually lasting between three and 12 months. Support can take many forms, including mentoring, funding, access to a workspace, networking and business training. An accelerator programme focused on connecting startups with the third sector can play an essential role in facilitating more collaboration. It could fill expertise gaps in third sector organisations (e.g., legal, business support) and help startups adjust to third sector processes. Similar to the GovStart programme in the public sector, we believe that an accelerator programme dedicated to bringing startups and third sector organisations together could be transformational, but external funding is required to develop it.
  4. Cross-sector collaboration platform. Some challenges are so complex that they cannot be tackled within dyadic third sector-startup collaborations. Instead, multiple organisations – including corporates, government bodies, charity banks and impact investors – may need to pool their resources. Setting up such multi-party collaborations requires brokering. At the moment, many partnerships result from past, informal or even serendipitous connections, which is not always the best way to find the right partner. There is a need for intermediary bodies to act as convenors and brokers between the third sector, private sector and public sector. One concept currently in design is the Humanitarian HIVE, a neutral, cross-sector platform, which seeks to provide an enabling, catalytic incubating environment for startup initiatives, as well as hosting a vibrant community to foster deeper collaboration.

How to get involved

In the next few months, we will be exploring how we might take (some of) these action points forward. If you are interested in getting involved, please join this Linkedin Group or get in touch with charlotte.reypens[at] or Gwil Purchase g.purchase[at] .


Charlotte Reypens

Charlotte Reypens

Charlotte Reypens

Senior Policy Researcher, Innovation Growth Lab

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

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Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Christopher Haley

Head of New Technology & Startup Research

Chris led 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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Gwil Purchase

Gwil leads on Humanitarian Collaboration and Innovation at Save the Children UK.