Despite its recent problems with quality, the car manufacturer Toyota remains world renowned for its pioneering manufacturing processes. One of the things Toyota learnt early on was the benefit of nurturing a network of automotive firms, who shared strategic and technical know-how to achieve a more effective overall supply chain.   

As a Fellow of the Clore Social Leadership Programme, I’m currently working with NPC on a project looking at how large charities work with other charities in the same field. But I started my career as a manufacturing engineer, so it’s not surprising that the Toyota example has some resonance for me when I look at charities.

Most charities exist to make positive changes to peoples’ lives. But the social problems they address are often complex, and achieving a positive change requires them to undertake a range of activities. For example, ensuring a better quality of life for an elderly person living alone might require personal care, befriending, benefits advice and meals-on-wheels. NPC’s little blue book  describes how we can map the range of activities that contribute to impact, using the idea of ‘backward mapping’: starting with the desired outcome for a person, and using this to identify the outputs required and then the activities required to deliver this.

But seldom are all of these activities performed by one organisation. The reality is that impact is usually delivered through a network of organisations providing the required range of activities. The interactions between activities and organisations working to achieve impact are usually much more complicated than a linear supply chain in manufacturing. And whether charities like it or not, this means one charity’s impact can be dependent upon the activities of other organisations in the network (which sometimes will be competitors too).

Charities are failing if they don’t know their network.

Furthermore, there’s little point in one charity diligently delivering its activities in isolation if elsewhere in the network an activity critical to delivering impact isn’t happening.

We need charities and their funders to focus on the strategy and performance of their whole network, not just their own activities. Sometimes this will mean a charity has to help to strengthen other organisations rather than growing their own in order to achieve more impact.

The UK Vision strategy is a great example of this. Led by RNIB, it has brought together visually impaired people, eye health and social care professionals, and statutory and voluntary organisations, to develop an overall strategy for a network that will reduce avoidable sight loss and improve support and services for blind and partially sighted people.

We need more Toyotas in the charity world, willing to make efforts to build and strengthen their network. What I’m advocating requires a substantial strategic shift for most charities. The question is, are they ready to look beyond their own boundaries in pursuit of impact?

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