Bringing partnerships to life

08 Feb 2022 In-depth

Personal experience is the driving force behind two of Parkinson’s UK’s most successful corporate relationships, explains Ghalib Ullah.

Like many charities during the pandemic, at Parkinson’s UK we had to pause, recalibrate, innovate and work together as a team to deal with the challenges we faced. But this also allowed us to be bold and think outside the box. No one could have predicted how the pandemic would impact corporate partnerships teams and how we would have to pivot to build new relationships with corporate partners, using tools such as webinars, WhatsApp and Zoom.

Corporate partnerships are not a case of speed dating, but more like long-distance dating, often lasting for several months, even years. And often you don’t have to go out to find the right partner, you just need to look inwards. The seeds of a great corporate partnership may already be germinating within your network, and just need nurturing.

The keys to our successful partnerships with retailer Next and digital out-of-home (OOH) advertising company SmartOutdoor, for example, were collaborating and co-creating with existing members of the Parkinson’s community.

Parkinson’s is the fastest growing neurological condition in the world, and currently there is no cure. Anyone can get Parkinson’s, young or old. In the UK, around 145,000 people are already living with the condition. We estimate that around one million people are affected as the loved one, friend or colleague of someone with Parkinson’s. And it’s through those people and their desire to increase wider understanding of the condition and raise funds that we are currently growing our corporate partnerships. Through our existing internal networks, VIP ambassadors and members of the community, we have been sowing the seeds of interest and nurturing them into strong corporate partnerships.

Mutually beneficial

Often, the most natural corporate partnerships are the ones that are right in front of you, but you don’t realise their potential because they have sprung up so organically. When you have a driven member of the Parkinson’s community, who is already working for a potential corporate partner, brokering potential discussions is a lot easier. There is a shared connection already established; we are just helping to build mutually beneficial ideas. And through our corporate partnerships, we aim to increase awareness of Parkinson’s, tackle common misconceptions and increase understanding.

Perfect fit

The idea of working with Next started when one of their designers, Genna Douglas, who lives with Parkinson’s and is an advocate for mothers with young onset Parkinson’s, approached us. Teaming up with a high-profile retailer such as Next seemed a perfect fit, but we did not set out to court them; Douglas brought them to us. She wanted us to help share her experience of young onset Parkinson’s, and the challenges of balancing family life with work, in order to inspire others experiencing the same problems.

Conversations really started in lockdown and we officially launched the partnership on 11 April 2021 – World Parkinson’s Day. It kicked off with an exclusive range of T-shirts and tote bags. Next agreed that 100% of the profits would come to Parkinson’s UK, and one of the items sold out within two weeks.

Our second collaboration with Next was with designer Alex Echo, who also has personal lived experience of Parkinson’s. He created bold, uplifting designs for an exclusive range of homeware and kids’ T-shirts. The Share the Love cushions flew off the shelves in a matter of weeks.

The success of both collaborations was their person-centred nature, based around lived experience of Parkinson’s. It was a community-driven approach, rather than having the charity calling the shots about who was involved and how.

Listen to your community

Our approach to corporate partnership is that we don’t dictate, we listen to our community and take its lead.

An example of this approach is our work with OOH advertising specialist SmartOutdoor. Owner Mark Catterall, who was diagnosed with Parkinson’s in 2019, offered us free digital advertising space after contacting the charity via our support services. It was his diagnosis that led a family member to contact the Parkinson’s UK’s Excellence Network, a network of 7,000 healthcare and social care professionals providing support for people with the condition. During a conversation with a specialist, Catterall mentioned an interest in increasing publicity about Parkinson’s and using his digital advertising business. A shared purpose was discovered and the lead was passed to my team to follow up on.

SmartOutdoor donated outdoor digital advertising billboards to support the soft launch of the charity’s highly successful Time for Can campaign, which ran during September last year. This phase of our campaign was not overtly asking for funds, but designed to increase campaign reach and understanding of the condition to an audience of four million people over four weeks.

Images from the campaign were broadcast along the route of the Great North Run and cornered a captive audience during the pandemic by posting digital messages on hand sanitiser stations in Moto service stations across the UK. Historically, all of our corporate partnerships have been initiated by members of the Parkinson’s community but now, we are going further and handing over the reins to people outside the organisation. Collaborating closely with our partners, we utilised their business connections and network, helping to bring their interests, ideas and enthusiasm to life through mutually beneficial partnerships.

No boundaries

In our 2020-24 strategy, we set out a plan to make sure that people with Parkinson’s are at the heart of everything we do. Our agile and collaborative approach to corporate partnerships is an extension of that.

As a department, we have a truly multidisciplinary approach to securing corporate partnerships; we don’t set boundaries. Although the relationships are, mostly, corporate led, we work closely with our media, VIP, marketing, brand and content teams to imagine what these partnerships could be and then to bring them to life. It is an agile approach to cross-collaboration, securing corporate partnerships and raising awareness of what we do.

This year, we want to continue building on the foundations of these relationships. As restrictions ease, we are hoping to invite our partners – old and new – to more fundraising events, such as our Walk for Parkinson’s series. The pandemic brought new hybrid working opportunities, but as we go into a new year, we are excited about taking our corporate partnerships from a virtual platform back to doing more things in person.

Top tips for partnerships

  • Be person-centred and driven by your community. Lived experience and connections may be the most important assets you have.
  • Pivot. Look for a crossover. Some of your potential partners could be in plain sight. You just need to uncover them.
  • Be patient. Corporate partnerships do not happen overnight. Get to know them, understand what their USP is, how they operate and their challenges. Try to make a case for a longer-term shared purpose.
  • Don’t go in with a pound-sign mentality. The right partnerships can build brand, as well as income, if you find your shared purpose and strategic alignment. Remember you are as valuable to their aims as they can be to yours.
  • Try to stand out. Say thank you, send e-cards and ask for feedback. Be polite.
  • Take your internal team with you. We educated our teams about what we were trying to achieve, built understanding and upskilled them on how to spot potential prospects. Invite wider internal teams to brainstorming sessions, and embrace new ideas and suggestions together.
  • Take advantage of the working-from-home renaissance. It has made it easier to slide into someone’s DMs and diary to say hello.  

Ghalib Ullah is head of commercial partnerships at Parkinson’s UK @ParkinsonsUK

Fundraising Live and the Charity Technology Conference return this year. Both conferences will take place in-person in London on Wednesday 2 March 2022, and the theme will be ‘Strategies and tools for success in the new world’. Find out more and book your place here. 


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