What comes to mind when you think of charities? Altruism? Campaigning? Collaboration?
One word that never came to my mind was ‘business’. But there I found myself, a fresh-faced graduate, ready to join Richmond Fellowship’s (RF) Business Development Team.
To give you a little bit of context, much of RF’s resources come from providing local authority and NHS services, contracted to organisations like us through a formal tender process (generally an application form plus a price quoted for delivering the service). People speak frequently of the privatisation of state services, but this isn’t entirely accurate. The state, not the individual, still foots the bill, and so a more accurate description is provision through a health and social care quasi-market. (For more information on this topic, I would recommend Bartlett and Le Grand’s classic study, Quasi-Markets and Social Policy, essential reading for all aspiring social economists.)
One of the first things that hit me when joining RF was the frequency with which I heard the word ‘competitor’. Our main competitors, it transpired, were organisations just like ourselves: charities that were committed to providing high-quality services for people experiencing mental health problems.
Along with ‘competitor’, another term I heard frequently was ‘commercial sensitivity’. There is certain information that you just don’t share with others for fear of losing your competitive edge. Losing your competitive edge means losing contracts, and losing contracts means going out of business.
This didn’t quite add up for me. It wasn’t Apple versus Windows, or Tesco versus Asda. Surely we were all on the same side and should be sharing as much information as possible, working together to improve services for those experiencing mental health problems?
With these thoughts in mind, I set about my first Charityworks assignment, looking into the apparent conflict between competition and collaboration among mental health organisations.
Throughout my research, I spoke with a number of CEOs and business managers from mental health charities (our competitors!), all of whom acknowledged the tension I outlined above. The word ‘maturity’ came up in several of my conversations. As much as we can’t change the contract culture, we have to acknowledge its existence and be honest with each other about what can and can’t be shared.
It is clear then that there is indeed room for collaboration but this says little about how we go about it. The answer, in my opinion, lies in what I like to call ‘macro-level collaboration’ or, if acronyms are your thing, MLC.
Macro-level collaboration refers to commercial competitors engaging with one another to address issues which affect the mental health sector as a whole. This may be through joint policy influencing or through public campaigning such as the Time to Change agenda.
Admittedly, such interaction will not result in organisations sharing their most innovative best practice, their ‘commercial secrets’ if you will. However, MLC does encourage networking and interactions among organisations (social capital) and enables them to develop reciprocal trusting relationships. This is a far cry from the poker-faced isolationists which may be a feature of the contract culture.
So what should the reader take away from this blog?
First of all, if you think that the charity sector is full of idealists who cannot hack the world of business, think again. Our organisations operate in a tough, competitive market where survival requires strong commercial acumen.
Nevertheless, the thing that makes this sector so special is that, even in most competitive market places, there is still room for collaboration among organisations committed to providing quality services for those who need them. All that’s required is a little imagination, seizing every opportunity for collaborative working and relationship building without compromising your unique selling point. Business skills and social purpose can combine to deliver real change.