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Joining forces: making collaborative campaigns work

15 February 2013

Why are there so many charities which all seem to do the same thing? And why don’t more of them work together?

These are common, and not unreasonable, questions from the public. There are over 600 cancer charities in the UK for example, and more than 500 charities serving the armed forces. You can forgive supporters for getting muddled about who does what and wondering why they don’t co-operate more.

“As individual charities, we know what we’re doing and what our specific USPs are, but we’re often working on the same goals as others,” says David Bowles, head of policy at the RSPCA.

Partnerships amplify your voice

David is the RSPCA’s lead on Team Badger, a coalition of 15 charities fighting a coalition government determined to push through a major cull of the UK’s badger population in an effort to control bovine TB in cattle. So far, the campaign has successfully halted the cull, with the government shelving the project at least until this summer.

On a different scale, the On Your Own Two Feet campaign run by Action for Children and Barnardo’s, was a partnership of two, formed to try and overturn the government’s 2011 decision to abolish Child Trust Funds. According to the charities, this decision disproportionately affected the most vulnerable children – those in care. For some of these kids, this was the only bank account or savings they had, and Action for Children and Barnardo’s came together to fight their corner. “An interested MP had talked separately to both charities,” says Caroline Parr, Action for Children’s head of digital and corporate communications. “We had a bigger voice together.” That voice was directed towards producing a joint report, a Parliamentary event, lobbying and digital comms. The result was that for each of the 55,000 children in care, £200 will be deposited in a Junior ISA.

Gain access to funding and networks

It’s not just lobbying campaigns where charities working together can be bigger than the sum of their parts. The £20m Time to Change campaign, aimed at changing consumer behaviour and run jointly by Rethink Mental Illness and Mind, has led to attitudes towards people with mental health issues improving for the first time since being tracked.

Collaboration opens doors to funding, says Jane Harris, associate director of communications at Rethink Mental Illness. “There is some truth in the classic definition of partnership as ‘the sublimation of mutual loathing in the pursuit of funding’ – and that’s the funding part. It allows you to access resources in the widest sense that you can’t get on your own.”

It also gives you access to each other’s networks: supporters, donors and beneficiaries. Rethink Mental Illness and Mind had three funding partners at different times with Time to Change – Comic Relief, Department of Health and the Big Lottery Fund – each of which brought more than just cash to the table. Comic Relief gave the campaign access to celebrities, for example, while the Department of Health has made the campaign a key plank of the government’s mental health strategy.

That’s not to say it’s all easy sailing chumming up with your competitors. Before forming a coalition it’s vital to consider the three key issues of brand, profile and fundraising and how they match up on either side of the deal. David, Caroline and Jane’s collective experience has generated eight lessons for charities looking to partner up.

1. Agree a very clear goal
For Team Badger, the simple goal was to stop the cull.

2. Agree the rules
Team Badger included 15 organisations from single species charities, such as the Badger Trust, to all-animal charities like RSPCA. The group ranged from local charities to organisations with an international remit, and covered a wide number of issues, including vegetarianism, animal rights and conservation. “Even agreeing the name was a convoluted process!” says David. “Team Badger had to be able to react quickly so we needed clear sign-off procedures. We also agreed not to issue joint press releases.”

3. Play to your strengths
Match strengths and weaknesses beforehand, Jane advises. “Mind was good at corporate engagement and had more sophisticated ways of involving beneficiaries,” she says. “Rethink Mental Illness had a better track record in digital and social marketing. But an added bonus to the partnership has been that lessons learned from the programme over five years have filtered through to the rest of the organisation – the two sides have learned from each other’s strengths.”

4. Get buy-in from the top of the organisation
There’s no point going ahead if the CEO and trustees are not fully on board, warns David.

5. Agree simple messages…
… and get everyone to stick to them. Make sure the stories you’re telling are about the cause, not the partnership, says Caroline.

6. Prepare well, and be open to finding new ways of doing things
“We did lots of work behind the scenes to knock down the barriers of joint working,” says Caroline. “As two charities working in the same space, we were not used to working as a team. But we were working together through choice, not circumstance.”

7. Get ready for messiness
“Involving lots of people in a project can mean a level of chaos, but it’s worth it,” says Jane. “Only an organisation of one has no messiness – and even then there may be some internal conflict!”

8. Be sparing with partner status
Don’t include anyone as a partner who doesn’t bring something specific to that relationship or really needs the status of partner.

And the main snagging points? According to David, it was issues around data and money coming in, and agreeing who got what. For Time to Change, one major flashpoint was over use of language: “mental distress” vs “mental illness”, for example. “It forced us to be more professional and scrutinise our audiences more closely,” says Jane.

In the end, it’s worth the effort. “We got so much further together than alone,” says Caroline. “When you have the same agenda, it’s bonkers not to work together.”

David, Caroline and Jane discussed the pros and cons of collaborative campaigning at a recent CharityComms organisational member lunch. Find out more about the exclusive benefits of organisational membership.

Vicky Browning


Vicky became CEO of ACEVO, the charity and social leaders’ network, in January 2017, helping to empower our inspiring sector leaders to make the biggest difference they can to their beneficiaries, their organisation and to society. Vicky was previously CharityComms’ director for nearly seven years.