Impact Shakers
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Impact Shakers

Startup collaboration with the Humanitarian sector. An interview with Gwil Purchase, Senior Humanitarian Collaborative Initiatives Lead at Save the Children UK.

A little over a year ago, Nesta & Impact Shakers hosted a first roundtable discussion on the subject of startup collaboration for innovation in the third sector, more specifically on working with large scale international NGO’s.

Gwil Purchase, Senior Humanitarian Collaborative Initiatives Lead at Save the Children UK was one of the first believers to join the conversation. Now, one year and many discussions and interviews later, a working group led by Nesta, consisting of a wide coalition including Nesta, Save the Children UK, Impact Shakers, NCVO, ACEVO, Bond, DFID, Good Innovation, UN Innovation Network & CAST, published a pioneering report on the matter with hands on tips and checklists.

We turn to early enthusiast Gwil to get his perspective on why this is an important topic.

You were one of the first responders to the call for the roundtable, what did you think when Nesta launched that first call for participants?

I had been in discussion with some other colleagues within Nesta at the time so it felt like a bit of a ‘hallelujah’ moment, to be honest. A number of colleagues and I, within Save the Children, had been advocating for a long time to do some further research into this topic so it was fantastic when it came together.

How do you approach innovation at Save the Children UK?

Save the Children is a very innovative organisation, at its heart, with an incredibly talented, passionate and creative cadre of staff. Over its 100+ year history it has either created or been directly involved in some of the most ground-breaking solutions to the complex challenges faced by crisis-affected populations. That being said, it is not immune from many of the challenges and barriers we came across through the research in ‘Better Together’. Being a large organisation, there is currently lots of innovative activity but it happens inconsistently and often in silos, meaning that we are not realising our full potential. Work is happening this year to build on current levels by developing more of a ‘cross-organisational’ approach to innovation, so watch this space.

Elrha, Start Network and Humanitarian Leadership Academy, as well as the Collaborative Cash Delivery Network, were started from within Save the Children UK, do you consider them spin-offs? Can you please tell us some more about how and why that happened?

All of the entities you mention were either started from within, or co-founded by, Save the Children UK. Over the last decade the organisation has pursued a strategy to enable and develop the growth of ‘global good’ initiatives. These collaborative initiatives are very different in their focus, structures and stage of development, however I would consider them all types of humanitarian start-ups. Each initiative came into being for very different reasons and what Save the Children UK has sought to do is to provide an enabling environment for them to survive and grow. You ask whether they are considered spin-offs. The aim is for all of these entities to, hopefully, become independent and ‘spin-off’ from Save the Children UK’s hosting platform. So, to that end I would. To date, both Elrha and the Start Network have become independent legal entities, whilst others are at a different stage of their journey.

Did you already set up collaborations with startups? Where did you find them, how did that go?

There have been many interactions between different teams within Save the Children UK and start ups although, as far as I’m aware, there have not been any ‘formal’ collaborations. Within our Humanitarian endeavour, as previously mentioned, there has been a focus on the creation and enabling of humanitarian startup initiatives, which has been less about setting up collaborations with existing startups, however this is certainly an area we are looking to develop further. With the wider Save the Children movement, Save the Children Australia have set up a number of collaborations with startup organisations, some of which have then become acquisitions as a pathway to scale (this is one of the case studies in ‘Better Together’).

What kind of initiative could advance collaboration with startups?

Building on the experience and learning developed through the last decade of hosting and incubating these humanitarian startup organisations, I passionately believe there is a huge opportunity for a purposed, neutral platform to be created, outside of any individual organisation or institution, which provides an enabling environment for start up initiatives to be born, grow and flourish. This platform would be a cross-sector endeavour, bringing value-add from a diverse group of partners to provide the platforms’ community with dedicated access to a ranges of different services ranging from core ‘support’ services, such as HR, Finance and Legal through to professional services, such as strategy development and business modelling through to Innovation and design expertise. The platform would be able to act in an intermediary capacity, to enable these innovative initiatives to access a wider range of funding and investment/venturing opportunities. This initiative is something that could rapidly advance startup collaboration and provide the opportunity for new types of relationships to be built outside of the current constraints. At the moment, it has the working title of the Humanitarian HIVE. If this resonates with anyone reading this interview, then please do get in touch as we are actively seeking a diverse group of partners to take this forward to the next stages.

What advice do you have for startups that want to collaborate with the third sector?

  1. Read the ‘Better Together’ report. It provides many insights to the complexity of this type of collaboration whilst also, hopefully, highlighting the massive opportunities there are if we continue to experiment together.
  2. Be really clear with what value you, the startup, are bringing to the third sector organisation and be really clear on what value you expect the third sector organisation to be bringing to you. Then discuss this with one another at the outset. This honesty and clarity is really important and will allow the most fertile and creative of relationships to grow.
  3. Make sure you are talking to the right person(s) in the organisation. This is something discussed in the Better Together report. You could spend a lot of time and energy developing a really strong relationship only for the eventual decision-maker to close it down. Therefore, in the early interactions make sure everyone is clear on the governance and pathway to agreement/approval, particularly in larger organisations.
  4. Join the Better Together LinkedIn group! We want to build this into a vibrant community of practice / network, which will help catalyse startup collaboration with third sector organisations.

On Sept 29th we’re hosting an Impact Shakers Talks with the lead authors of the Nesta report Christopher Haley & Charlotte Reypens. Register here.

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Yonca Braeckman

Yonca Braeckman

Impact ecosystem builder and misfit champion