Whether influencing policy-makers, funding research and improving outcomes, simply sharing best practice or avoiding duplication of efforts, we are far better off working together. Collaboration helps us achieve much more, faster.

Charities should be masters of collaboration. Our sole purposes should lie in the best interests of our beneficiaries, and making the biggest possible difference for them absolutely requires the collaboration of like-minded charities.

It’s not always easy. Barriers remain, particularly within an increasingly competitive voluntary sector.  Similarly, short-term, organisational objectives can often get in the way, including those around attribution and profile, as well as fundraising.  But while negotiating these hurdles is often difficult, doing so is crucial. In my experience, if we can rise above these factors everyone stands to benefit.

When merging makes sense

Of course, collaboration is by no means a new idea in the charity sector, but it is one that we are particularly passionate about at Breast Cancer Now. It is one that has been crucial to our history and is now essential to achieving our vision.

In 2013, when our legacy charities Breast Cancer Campaign and Breakthrough Breast Cancer published five-year strategies, we had very similar goals and ideas about how to achieve them. We both committed to stopping women dying from breast cancer in the UK, and it quickly became apparent that our approaches to achieving this were very complementary.

It was clear that merging would lead to faster progress in research, a stronger voice for breast cancer patients and real efficiencies in the organisations. It made sense for our shared ambition to become our united ambition, as Breast Cancer Now.

Together, collaboration internally and externally remains vital in almost every aspect of our work, and it’s central to our brand.  We believe that if we all act now, by 2050 everyone who develops breast cancer will live; but we know we cannot achieve this alone.

We are currently co-ordinating cross-organisational collaborations across a number of critical issues, including the Common Cancers Coalition and the cancer charities’ working group to develop a sustainable successor to the Cancer Drugs Fund. These are so important to us because working together gives us greater capacity and a much, much stronger voice.

Our passion for collaboration also comes in part from the way the scientific community works. Medical research has become multi-disciplinary in recent years, with a greater number of specialties needed to solve very complex problems. To this end, we’re currently funding around £23million of ground-breaking research projects, supporting nearly 450 of the world’s brightest researchers at more than 30 institutions across the UK—a portfolio of research that our merger has made possible.

Whilst I think mergers should be talked about more openly within the charity sector, it is not right for everyone and it certainly shouldn’t be thought of as the end-goal of all collaborative working.

Collaborating better

So what can charities do to encourage collaboration at every level? Firstly, it’s imperative that you have a clearly-defined strategy that is carefully aligned with your charitable purpose; from that, shared objectives, synergies and opportunities for partnership can be more easily identified and explored.

Secondly, I would simply urge you to work as closely as possible with your beneficiaries. We spend a lot of time with our supporters and the women and families affected by breast cancer to ensure that everything we do is rooted in the realities and needs of their everyday lives.

This is a necessity for us, but I think it’s a sector-wide truth: the better we understand our beneficiaries and what they see as their best interests, the better we can serve, represent and make the greatest difference. And that, after all, is what we exist to do.

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