The Sharing Economy – how charities and community groups could share more AND be better off

As a child I was always told that sharing was good. It meant that everyone had an equal chance to take part. So we divided up sweets (biting them in half, if required) and took turns on the swing.

Did it feel good, well… not always, but sharing is something I now encourage in my own children and equally with the charities, voluntary and community groups and social enterprises I help.

Sharing is an important lesson to learn about equality and fairness, unity and strength in numbers, collective action and a sense of community and I would add, makes organisational and financial sense.

Going through the Charity Commission’s list of charities will throw up multiple organisations providing similar services in one geographical area or specialism.

Often or not these organisations have little or nothing to do with their ‘competitors’ seeing the differences between themselves rather than the similarities. Determined to be independent at all costs, having their own space, staff, volunteers and funding.  There are exceptions of course, with some very large mergers and collaborations at a national level. But for smaller charities and community organisations, some would rather fail than form an alliance.

Funding, or more recently the lack of it, hasn’t helped as you might think.  Instead of clubbing together, there is a tendency for organisations to become less than happy to work with other organisations. They look inwardly, cutting capacity, reducing expenditure and closely guarding their access to funding. And yet I would argue sharing is an opportunity to learn and develop, meeting aims and objectives and growing the sustainability of the sector.

Space sharing

For many smaller organisations the overheads of running a building can be difficult, sharing space or leasing space out to similar organisations has benefits beyond the rent. People can access more services in one place, heating, lighting, telephone and other costs can be shared, buildings can be open longer, staff and volunteers can learn from each other and gain peer support.

Resource sharing

Many assets owned by charities and community organisations are not used for the majority of the time. That’s because many services are daytime, week days. And yet these assets (with a bit of planning) could be used by other community groups at other times, providing additional services and bringing in important income. Minibuses, photocopiers, projectors, display boards and gazebos all have the potential of being shared.

People, have the capacity of being involved in more than one organisation and in fact do so. Volunteers (often one of the most guarded assets) can be offered opportunities to work with other organisations, building on their experience that they can bring back to the ‘host’ organisation, fulfilling their own needs and enabling them to try out new things.

Intelligence sharing

Organisations can be cagey when it comes to data. OK, so some information should not be shared, data protection is important and details of service users should be protected. But the data organisations collect on a need for a service, the cost of providing it, where an organisation has gaps or extra capacity, what works and what doesn’t, are much more useful when used collectively. This shared data can be a powerful tool in building evidence of need, solutions to problems, ideas to innovation and demonstrate the impact of the sector.

Money sharing

If data is a subject matter kept close to the chest, then money is even more of a secret squirrel. What is stopping small charities and community organisations bidding with another local organisation for a contract instead of against them?

The ability to work in partnership is particularly important to smaller organisations that individually would not necessarily be able to offer all the things required of a contract but collectively could offer a very special service indeed – the total being much greater than the sum of the parts.

Mission complete?

Organisations are (or should be) be driven by their mission.  So if the mission is met by another organisation providing a service – than that is good isn’t it? So why do so many organisations choose not to work together to further their aims?

One reason maybe around trust, organisations that do not share cannot easily trust. Organisations that build an environment which shares the same space, involves the same people, exchanges data and is open about finance may also find it easier to trust and share their vision and meet everyone’s mission.

Jacqui Wolstenholme

First published in 2016