Great endings

October 24, 2007

So much is written about how partnerships can be started up and what they achieve, but so little focuses on what happens when partnerships come to an end. Francesca Wakefield talks to Steve Ballantyne at Help the Hospices and Lorna Liggett at Home Retail Group, Argos’ parent company, about what they learned from their partnership.

In July this year a two-year partnership that raised over £1.2 million for charity came to an end. Help the Hospices and Argos have been working together since July 2005 to raise money for the many hospices throughout the UK that house and care for people who are terminally ill.

The partnership

Primarily a fundraising partnership, Argos used cause-related marketing, giving initiatives as well as product sales to raise £1,236,461 for Help the Hospices – over twice the amount it had originally hoped for. From World Cup wristbands to reindeer food (standard recipe: oats and glitter), Tick to Give schemes to charity champions, the alliance with Help the Hospices was Argos’ most successful charity partnership yet. Lorna believes a key factor behind the huge success of the partnership was its localised nature – every hospice was linked to one or more Argos stores in its local community.

Winding down

According to Lorna and Steve, the key issues in winding down a partnership are collaboration, communication and planning. When properly managed, these things can help insure not only a happy ending to a partnership, but a happy beginning and middle as well.

Both Lorna and Steve stressed the importance of collaboration at all stages of the partnership. In order to make the transition “as seamless as possible”, Help the Hospices invited the account manager of Argos’ new charity partner to spend a day shadowing Help the Hospices’ main Argos contact.

This is a tried and tested method for the Home Retail Group and Help the Hospices with each spending a day at the others office at the beginning of the partnership in order to gain a better understanding of the organisation they were going to be working with. Lorna notes that the experience facilitated an “appreciation for each others business” and an understanding of the resource and time restrictions the other organisation faced. Steve believes other businesses and charities could learn much from increased collaboration in this way.

Clichéd as Lorna worries it sounds, communication is another crucial factor in ending a charity/company partnership successfully as well as throughout the partnership. Both Lorna and Steve stressed that the partnership was open and honest and that this transparency helped to ensure issues never evolved into problems.

Lorna also points out that communication with employees is vital in maintaining enthusiasm for the current charity partner while ensuring employees are aware and excited about the new one. Keeping employees informed can be central in keeping them motivated, inspired and goal-orientated.

In order to learn as much as they could from their experience with Help the Hospices, Argos also sent out employee questionnaires to gain a better understanding of how staff felt about the partnership. Communication with the community was done primarily though in-store advertising and local press.

Argos plans in six-month blocks and as such planning for the new charity partner began six months before the partnership with Help the Hospices came to an end, with the results of the employee vote on the new partner internally announced in February. Both parties felt that planning – be it 6 or even 3 months in advance – ensured that everyone knew where they stood and was prepared when the partnership finally came to an end.

While the long planning cycle could have presented a challenge in terms of keeping the momentum of the partnership going, Lorna notes that communication with employees as well as ensuring that each store had achievable targets ensured the partnership never lost drive.

Moving on

Using Argos’ and Help the Hospices’ experiences Briefing has derived some key points useful for any organisation nearing the end of a corporate-charity partnership:

* Start planning three to six months beforehand to ensure risks are minimised and opportunities are maximised.
* Ensure that communication channels with employees as well as the charity/company are always kept open.
* Don’t cut off communication with your partner organisation the day the partnership ends, ongoing communication allows for a smoother transition.
* Continue to openly recognise achievements and milestones to keep the momentum of the partnership going until the very end.

It was clear from talking to Lorna and Steve that the two year partnership between Help the Hospices and Argos is one that will not be easily forgotten. Already three months since the partnership ended there is still a great deal of mutual respect between the organisations with both showing support for the other.

While companies with deeper community involvement may face greater challenges in ending their charity partnerships than those faced by Argos, there are certainly lessons to be learnt from how amicably Help the Hospices and Argos parted ways.