Partnership and collaboration is needed for systemic change, say cancer charity leaders 

21 Apr 2021 News

The charity sector will “only achieve systemic change” if organisations understand they are one part of a system, the chief executive of CLIC Sargent has said.

Rachel Kirby-Rider was speaking at Civil Society Media’s Spring Summit, alongside Kate Collins, chief executive of the Teenage Cancer Trust, and Frank Fletcher, chief executive of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, about how their charities collaborated during the pandemic.

Kirby-Rider said: “As a sector, I truly believe that we will only achieve systemic change if we understand we are one part of a system…  that works in a very specific way and is very targeted and has become more focused and more targeted because of Covid-19.”

This means charities have to play to their strengths, and “invest our expenditure, our time and our resources where we can make the most impact”, she said. 

Therefore “we have to recognise that other agencies will have to work with us, and we have to work with them in an integrated way”.

The three keynote speakers represent cancer charities which all support young people in different ways, and they formalised a partnership last year. 

Kirby-Rider explained: “The partnership is about us identifying where each of us creates the most impact and how we can work collectively together, and how we can create pathways through each of our agencies that will be able to provide that impact or provide that support for a young person so they didn't fall through the cracks.”

This sentiment was echoed by Fletcher of the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust, who said: “This is about three organisations coming together to achieve the best outcomes for young people.”

He said the organisations look at how they can put young people at the centre, and from there decide how the charities can work together to make sure that they are getting the best outcomes. 

“Rather than talking about our organisations, we talked about young children, young people, young adults with cancer,”  Fletcher said.

The impact of the pandemic was that it very much “focused” the charities on their cause and beneficiaries, he added.

Collins of the Teenage Cancer Trust said: “It's amazing what you can achieve if you don't care who gets the credit, and I think that's been a real driving force for us.”

What challenges have there been?

Collins said one of the challenges of the partnership was that Teenage Cancer Trust's change programme took longer CLIC Sargent's. She said she was concerned partner charities might think they “we were dragging our feet, or that we were not heart and soul into this”.

“We had hoped to be able to share news around partnership working before Christmas and I can remember carrying some guilt,” she said.

Kirby-Rider also highlighted fundraising. She said: “I think the key area that might be a little bit sticky for all of us was concern about the reaction of our fundraising teams. Because obviously, we're all voluntary funded. There is a necessity especially during Covid-19 for us to be able to raise money, and we questioned if that would be a complication with this partnership.”

However they all said that their fundraisers got on board, and in fact the partnership had given opportunities for joint funding.

Fletcher said: “I think there was some nervousness in our fundraising teams. I think we all felt that, but actually, I feel that from my perspective, our fundraising team is as onboard as the rest of the organisation.” 

He added: “I think as a sector we forget that most funders are motivated by a cause, not an organisation. And the thing that most surprised me about this partnership is how positive the reaction was, both from some of our big trust and grant funders but also from our high net-worths.”

Collins said: “I think there has been a real narrative of scale and competition in the sector for probably as long as I've been in it. I think the focus needs to be on impact.”

Why not merge?

The panel also discussed “the elephant in the room”, namely why they decided not to merge.

Kirby-Rider said: “Very quickly into the pandemic, we knew that we had to make some changes to be able to mitigate those drops in income.” However, a merger would have been a “distraction”, so the idea was taken off the table. 

“We all do slightly different things, but actually coming together collectively, working in a way that's really integrated in a formalised partnership approach, enables us to really deliver that impact and play to our strengths without the distraction of a merger,” she said.

She added: “It's irresponsible to continue with duplication when we don't need to, and I think the sector as a whole is a little bit irresponsible in that. We should be better at thinking about reduction of duplication, especially when there is a limited amount of resources.”

Kirby-Rider said it was important to focus on impact ahead of overall income. 

“We shouldn't be equating success on turnover," she explained. “We should be equating success on impact, and the impact that we've delivered to our beneficiaries. And I think, fundamentally, a merger becomes a distraction because it can be about turnover, not about impact.” 

She continued: “Actually what has been really refreshing is that taking that completely off the table means that there aren't any hang ups within our teams because they know that that isn't a question that needs to continuously be asked. We have created a way that we can work in partnership that is transparent and authentic. It will not come without challenge, but because we have a trusted relationship between the three of us, we can we can navigate that.”

Fletcher added: “I think it would have just been a distraction and taken many years whereas, this partnership has been quick, and we've achieved everything we would have achieved.”

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