Foes or friends? market awareness in a changing world

What next? In part 1 of this series I discussed the importance of knowing about the world outside our front door, in the form of five Prompt Points. In part 2 I discussed sector dynamics and the ways in which organisations can better understand their operating environment. This blog continues the series by thinking about the choices organisations make, how they operate and how they work with others.

Put simply – how do you tell people what you do? How do you do it? Who with? And, how does your income profile affect your ability to do it well? How can you continually ensure your offer is relevant and your service reaches beneficiaries in the most effective and sustainable way possible?

To illustrate the fine line between competition and cooperation I am introducing some of the projects ACEVO Solutions has supported during the past year. These examples, by no means exhaustive, illustrate the amazing range of collaborative responses arising within the sector. Yes, in some contexts organisations may be forced into a competitive situations, but increasingly people are realising that if they recognise their respective strengths, the result can be stronger than the sum of its parts. Or, to be business-like, together finding solutions that best meets the needs of a particular market niche.

One popular option has been to form a consortium.  Consortium working can be an excellent way to work together formally yet maintain distinct identities. However, it can be very time consuming and, all importantly, relies on directors working over and above their day job. Many consortia have a local focus such as a single county or borough, for example Essex based 4SX .

A less commonly known version of consortia working is to develop one based on shared specialist interest such as SENDirect.  The SEND Consortium are a group of charities: Contact a Family (lead partner) Ambitious About Autism, Dyslexia Action, Family Fund, I Can, KIDS, Mencap, National Autistic Society and Scope. Collectively they knew that families find that support, activities and services don’t meet their childrens’ needs and it is stressful and time consuming finding those that do. In 2011, in response to searching for practical solutions to achieve a shared mission, the SENDirect  project focused around the development of a website showing a wide range of activities and support for families all in one place. In recognition of the groundbreaking work it achieved through coming together via this accessible website, SENDirect was awarded the Big Chip Award for the best Not-For-Profit project in 2015.

For some organisations, strategic analysis can  help  leaders identify that changes in the market mean they need to fundamentally rethink how best to deliver their charitable and business objectives. Considerations include reach, opportunities to strengthen offers  and benefits of economies of scale, usually coupled with serious financial considerations. Any combination of these and other factors may  lead to a more dramatic partnership conclusion: full-scale merger. This is the route that several youth charities have taken in recent years, in part a consequence of the severe challenges this sub-sector finds itself in coupled with critical challenges to the traditional face to face youth service model.

Announced in late 2015, two of the UK’s leading youth support charities YouthNet, and Get Connected, have recently merged, with a new brand shortly to be announced. The merger combines YouthNet’s extensive digital reach and Get Connected’s telephone helpline to create the UK’s largest multi-channel support charity for 16-25 year olds. The new charity will offer multi-issue support with a particular focus on mental wellbeing and creating opportunities through volunteering. This builds on a mutual exploration of the ways in which digital solutions for early intervention can help respond to an escalating demand for their services by young people across the UK.

What 2016 will bring for these and other partnerships remains to be seen, but a crucial success factor is always understanding shared goals, having robust governance and effective and responsive management that can navigate funding challenges, continually innovate and yet provide an effective and consistent service for people who need it. That is knowing your market and it is no mean feat. The real question is how to turn a perceived competitor into an ally. Forming a consortium is only one way to achieve this, but there are many shades of partnership along to the way, some in the form of unlikely friends.

Or, in the words of sector academics… ‘Analysis and sense-making for different segments of the sector may mean building new bridges and strengthening interest based alliances with other congruent groups and organisations or previously neglected partners.’*

To try your hand at developing your own consortium, ACEVO members have free access to our Consortia Development Toolkit.

To request an Understanding Your Costs workbook please email


* ‘Complying, Transforming or Resisting in the New Austerity?’ Linda Milbourne and Mike Cushman, Journal of Social Policy Volume 44, Part 3, July 2015)


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