NPC Ignites speaker

Charities must collaborate or fail

By Mike Adamson 17 October 2019

Red Cross CEO Mike Adamson spoke at 2019’s NPC Ignites, his speech examined the massive potential of the social sector to change the world, if it can work together and the characteristics of the new leaders who will put collaboration at the heart if achieving their mission.

I have watched a lot of sport over the years and the most successful teams are the ones who play in a system. They truly collaborate to manage the spaces and gaps between the players on the pitch, especially when they don’t have the ball. They have leaders all over the pitch. They want to change the patterns of play, they want to change the way we all think about the game. They transcend – even for non-sports fans.

This recently led me to question how we, as a sector, manage those spaces and gaps on the pitch and how we collaborate for the good of the entire ‘team’.

Undoubtedly, we have some fantastic organisations playing on the third sector pitch, and we do demonstrate some neat passing movements between some of us. But I would still ask:

  • How well are we actually collaborating to raise our chances of achieving shared goals?
  • How well are we managing the gaps?
  • How much are we increasing our chances of influencing the rules of the game overall?
  • As leaders, are we consistently ‘leaning in’ together to achieve the outcomes for the shared causes that we aspire to?

I am not trying to be unduly challenging or critical of the sector. It is strong and vibrant in so many ways. Nonetheless, I would argue that – despite our individual aspirations – it is still less than the sum of its parts.

Let’s give ourselves credit; there are some big problems facing humanity out there and we have set ourselves some very ambitious goals.

Just look at just a few of our vision statements:

  • Mind: We won’t stop until everyone with mental health problems gets both support and respect
  • Shelter: The right to a safe home
  • Oxfam: A just world without poverty
  • RNLI: To end preventable loss of life at sea
  • Refugee Action: Every refugee is able to live with dignity
  • New Philanthropy Capital: to transform the social sector
  • British Red Cross: Everyone gets the help they need in a crisis

Those are quite a set of missions; we are not modest in our ambition for humanity – and rightly so.

None of these goals can be achieved by a single organisation. And if we are going to tackle the challenges in those vision statements, scale matters – these are big problems. If there were a market in these problems – unmet consumer demand on this scale – the organisations meeting those needs would be enormous with big brands.

And yet, in comparison, we are small. Many people look at an organisation like the British Red Cross as a behemoth. But, in reality, we are not.

  • We are small in relation to the scale of unmet need that we seek to meet.
  • We are small in relation to the latent power of our brand.
  • We are small in relation to the scale of private sector organisations meeting an equivalent scale of unmet customer need.

Take one of our commercial partners, the Co-op; they have a turnover of £10bn. That is 40 times as big as the British Red Cross. Tesco’s turnover is six times bigger again.

Some charities may say “we don’t want to get that big”, and that’s fair enough. But the problems we are trying to solve are that big.

So, in my view, we have to find scale (impact and reach) between us in other ways – our whole must be bigger than the sum of our parts. Scale should not be a dirty word for us – and we should not let some of our critics imply that it is.

How are we doing in finding scale?

Over the last 35 years, I have often been in meetings with really smart leaders of really good will, apparently committed to the same goals: we wanted to help patients; to help deaf people; to help disabled people; to help refugees; to help people in emergencies around the world.

All the organisations shared an aspiration to make things better.

And yet, I have often come away from some of those meetings thinking about what might have been:

  • It might be differences of style, personality, philosophy that stops a conversation really developing to create shared value;
  • Or maybe economic pressures – a need to protect “my staff” from potential competition;
  • Or it’s sometimes passive co-existence. We share information; we enjoy meeting colleagues from organisations with similar challenges. But there is a kind of complacency there. We are good enough as we are.

Yet, there signs it is changing.


The immediate response to the Grenfell fire was one of extraordinary energy, and spontaneous humanitarian action from individuals, mosques, churches, youth groups and, yes, some planned action from organisations such as the British Red Cross as part of the response plans.

But – overall – it was uncoordinated. The system ultimately failed; the whole was less than the sum of the parts. We didn’t know each other well enough as people; we had not developed the connections and protocols between us in advance and so collaboration and partnership took time to emerge and resources were not as well utilised as they could have been.

So, as a result of that experience, we decided to do something about it.

We have created a new Voluntary and Community Sector Emergency Partnership (VCS EP), that links third sector, national and local government. National voluntary organisations such as British Red Cross, Victim Support, Muslim Aid, St John Ambulance and the Salvation Army have come together at CEO level, along with NAVCA, UK Community Foundations and NCVO to connect into the wider voluntary sector – small and large; and with resilience directors from the Civil Contingencies Secretariat, Manchester City Council, Ministry Housing Community and Local Government and Business in the Community.

We are investing in developing the relationships and diagnosing the key to effective action in advance of the emergency. We are getting to know each other personally and leaning in to improving outcomes. We are acting together with humility; no organisation is dominant. We cannot achieve our goals on our own.

A new type of leader

This approach requires enlightened social leadership, with the emphasis on a new mix of qualities:

  1. Curiosity and insight – this is essential to creating shared value; there is a great saying that “the future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed”; we need a willingness to find it and co-sense it together; it won’t be a linear path, test and learn and share.
  2. Presumption of good intentions in our partners. Trust is an outcome not an input; so “lean in” to the soft side; find out whether there is a difference of vision, personality, styles, underlying political philosophies, budgeting timetables, your own unconscious bias. We need to be ready to understand and woo partners who are important to the shared goal.
  3. Humility about sharing the space with others; share the hard work and glory but, critically, share the failure too. Large organisations can’t dominate and nor can London – parity of value is essential.
  4. Action orientation and system stewardship – as in any relationship, someone always has to make the first move; we need to nurture the connections and manage the gaps; We may need one organisation to act as a system steward and for the others to accept that.
  5. Patience/resilience – complex problems will not be fixed overnight; so CEOs and their boards need to keep their nerve, keep their organisation healthy while nudging the system towards their shared vision; and even when leaders change we have to continue this work, not retreat back to our organisational silo.

Boards need to select leaders who believe in the collective and take pride in it, so we have more of the right people in the leading roles. CEO performance should be assessed not only on how well they have led their organisation, but how well they have contributed to broader change – running a tight ship is not enough.

Small charities may be suspicious of large charities’ intentions, so large charities need to operate with humility, with parity of value. Large charities need to accept being convened as well as convening as long as we are working towards the scale of impact required. We need to make it clear to our own people at every level that this is our expectation. We may need to use our brand more flexibly or not at all.

We must be the change we want to see

So, let’s remember the ambition in our vision statements and lean in to achieve them collaboratively, so that we create maximum impact together in a fragmented and dispersed sector.

David Bowie said the ‘future belongs to those who can hear it coming’.

I think this is the future and we need to make sure we are the people who act on it.


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