Creating a best practice charity partnership: what we've learnt

28 July 2020

We partnered with pan-disability charity Scope back in 2015. We went from supporting 31 charities to having Scope as our core strategic partner;our shared ambition was to tackle one big hero cause that would drive a genuine, positive social impact and long-term change for disabled people. This collaboration underpinned Virgin Media’s Transforming Lives goal - one of five goals that make up our 2020 strategy. Together we committed to transforming the lives of disabled people through digital technology.

From the outset, the assumption was that we’d grow a core set of programmes, focussed on enabling the independence of disabled people and their families through the direct provision of digital technology, on which the partnership was established.

Learning 1: Don’t be afraid to change tact

When I joined Virgin Media in 2017, the partnership team was revisiting its programme of activity; the existing initiatives were driving solid impacts but the model simply wasn’t allowing us to reach enough disabled people to shift the dial on disability inclusion and live up to the commitment to transform the lives of disabled people that we’d set out to achieve.

The team decided to shift our focus to disability employment to ensure we delivered greater independence for more disabled people in the UK, with a better recognition that we as a partnership were uniquely positioned to deliver impact; As a big UK employer and a brand known for disruption, Virgin Media had the understanding and experience to bring a business perspective to Scope’s established knowledge of the barriers faced by disabled people in employment. Our five year goal period also meant we had time to change path effectively.

Our research in 2017 found, on average, disabled people apply for 60% more jobs than non-disabled applicants and 37% of disabled people believe employers won’t hire them because of their impairment or condition*. The disability employment gap has been stuck at over 30% for more than a decade and we know that disabled people face extra costs of £583** per month. One of the greatest barriers to independence for disabled people is getting into and staying in work and the consistent income employment provides in the face of extra costs.

That’s why, with Scope, in 2017 we made a bold commitment to support 1 million disabled people with the skills and confidence to get into and stay in work by the end of 2020.** Together, we established the Support to Work service, a new digital employment service, exclusively for disabled jobseekers. The service offers free online self-service employment resources and a tailored 12-week digital support programme where disabled people can work one-to-one with an advisor towards their desired employment outcome.

We set out to support disabled jobseekers directly, but also to prove there is a better model for the provision of employment support for disabled people, than is currently available in the public sector, that will genuinely tackle the disability employment gap.

By the end of 2019, Support to Work has supported 541,549 disabled jobseekers and we’re on track for our 1 million target by the end of 2020, but more importantly we are now much better equipped to understand, articulate and refine the impact of the service. We’re now focussing on ensuring we’re reaching the customers who need the most support, the quality of service each customer receives, and the change we’re able to support them to bring about in customers’ employability skills. 

Learning no 2: Focus on the impact, then the outcome

Moving the dial on a social issue will always requires a focus on the quality of impact you intend to have first and foremost before considering how something is scalable. To the social impact practitioner, quoting this principle of a Theory of Change model seems like an obvious point to make. However, I’ve found that it’s all too easy for a team to forget the change they actually intend to bring about in society, in favour of setting targets that look and sound good.

For example, when establishing and building the #WorkWithMe, a community of businesses committed to thinking and acting differently about disability, I’ve consistently challenged others involved in the project on trying to grow the membership for the sake of numbers; the quality of the membership is what’s important, the truly engaged members who have a clear desire to learn, contribute and support their fellow members, are the ones who are most likely to drive positive change on disability inclusion in their business – which is why we created the community in the first place.

Focus on the impact, if the demand is there, the scale will follow.

Learning no 3: Create organisational interdependence in partnerships

My next reflection is specifically on partnerships - don’t underestimate the impact a well-established strategic partnership can have on your business. In some organisations, there remains a misguided assumption that charities are the ones who stand to benefit from partnerships where corporates provide a financial contribution.

Virgin Media has made the most progress on disability inclusion over the last five years as a result of the education, access to expertise and motivation our strategic partnership with Scope has provided. We are reliant on their advice across a lot of key activity.

As a partnership manager, I feel a great sense of pride when Scope and Virgin Media teams work seamlessly together, essentially making me redundant, whether that’s marketing teams working on the accessibility of a brand refresh, design teams co-producing campaign assets or digital teams getting lots of brains in the same room to transform the content strategy of one of Scope’s core products.

Creating organisational interdependence in a partnership should be cultivated not avoided – it takes time, but it’s worth it - that’s how you drive genuine engagement with the impact the partnership was set up to achieve, in both business and charity.

These learnings all ladder up to one overarching reflection that the ‘charity of the year’ model is not something that businesses should be aspiring to anymore. While some business models, like short term franchise-based contracts, may limit an organisation from making longer term commitments, for the most part, if impact is at the heart of alliance, it’s probably going to take more than one year to deliver it.

An embedded approach to partnership working that uses the strengths of both organisations, over a set, longer period of time, to drive positive outcomes and impacts is what’s required. The brands of the charity and the business also need to align, hold similar values for this approach to work effectively.

This is not to say you put a few programmes in place and let them run their course for five years. On the contrary the partnership needs to be agile and the teams responsible for it need to be willing to constantly reflect on what is being delivered and able to react to external changes to ensure the collective drive towards that intended impact remains the number one priority.

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