To collaborate or compete?

By Belinda Vernon 8 February 2011

Whether to collaborate or compete is a difficult question for many charities. Greater competition for funding is driving charities to compete more with each other and with private organisations, but positive outcomes often require collaboration amongst organisations, not competition. So is there a danger that greater competition will drive charities apart and destroy the collaborative working that is so important to achieving positive outcomes for individuals?

In a report published today titled  Impact networks: charities working together to improve outcomes, we explore the benefits and some of the challenges of collaboration amongst charities. The benefits are many: primarily stemming from working together in a timely and efficient way to provide the full range of support that yields the best outcomes for individuals. If one organisation fails to do its bit, then the impact of the other organisations can be compromised. However there are many challenges to getting this right – not least the challenge of working with another organisation that, in other circumstances, might be your competitor.

Understanding and applying the concept of impact networks may help charities answer this difficult question of whether to collaborate or compete. It requires a clear understanding of what your organisation excels at and what other activities are needed to achieve the best possible outcomes for your beneficiaries. Competition on the other hand is usually between organisations (or activities) which do the same thing. Whilst competition can be healthy, it should encourage charities to question whether they are best placed to provide this service or whether they should concentrate on something else. Regular competition between the same organisations could be a sign that a partnership or merger might make more sense.

One charity that has a clear answer to collaboration or competition is the homelessness organisation Thames Reach. It collaborates with organisations that bring something different to the mix but will not collaborate with organisations who are competitors. For example, it worked with a small organisation with links to the Irish community in Lewisham to improve its services for homeless Irish people.

Ultimately, the issue of collaboration or competition challenges the very existence of an organisation – does it primarily exist for itself or does it exist for its beneficiaries. The extent to which an organisation collaborates or competes could be a clue.