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Laura Dosanjh

Corporate Corporate Advisor
Charities Aid Foundation

T: +44 (0) 3000 123 298

Pushing the debate on corporate-charity partnerships: a bold alliance to accelerate social change

In this blog, Laura Dosanjh from CAF, together with Natasha Parker from Macmillan Cancer Support, talk about the important contribution of partnership to addressing the growing needs of vulnerable customers.

The failure of CSR to influence corporate behaviour and drive real change for communities and customers has been widely discussed. With this has grown scepticism about businesses seeking to borrow a social ‘halo’ through their work with the charity sector. But, whatever your view, there is a risk of ignoring the real progress being made through creative partnerships between businesses and the social sector. We’ve seen many brilliant examples of businesses and charities collaborating on shared agendas and going beyond what might be expected as a minimum requirement for a socially responsible company.

And at CAF we’ve been pioneers on this agenda for some time.  Time and again, we’ve seen collaborative initiatives generate fresh insights, more inclusive models, push policy agendas and even achieve outcomes beyond what might have been seen as feasible by even public sector partners.  In short, charity partnerships have real potential to accelerate change. 

Recently Macmillan Cancer Support invited a wide group of their corporate partners from across different service industries to share learnings of developing successful partnership initiatives directly supporting people living with cancer, and to examine how businesses can better support vulnerable groups of customers.

Using the example of vulnerable people living with cancer, we asked businesses to consider their role in partnership with Macmillan in responding to the ever-increasing need to protect vulnerable customers. CAF provided independent facilitation, with a mandate to push to debate from both sides.  We’ve captured the essence of the discussion below.

Bold and creative thinking needed

What is it that is so special about these collaborations between the charity and corporate sectors? 

Well, for one thing, collaborations between companies and charities are not constrained by regulation or prescription of any kind.  Paradoxically it is the fact that new ways of thinking are required which makes this area so ripe for creativity and innovation.

Understanding how vulnerable people live their lives and the social needs and challenges of both current and future customers, insights that charities who are in direct contact with beneficiaries can share, is an opportunity for differentiation for smart businesses who think ahead. Charities tackling specialist issues can provide a deeper and more relevant insight that in turn can be used to drive better decision-making within the corporate; it helps businesses identify what people truly value and configure thoughtful services to reflect this – such as a two-way referral process with the third sector, including Macmillan, to ensure those in need are identified and helped sooner. 

Over 15 years, npower and Macmillan developed their partnership to support more than 46,600 people living with cancer through npower’s social energy programme. The combined output from two programmes address the principal causes of fuel poverty: the npower Macmillan Fund supported eligible customers by capping energy bills and writing off fuel debt; meanwhile npower also funded Macmillan’s Energy Advice Team, who offer guidance and support for people living with cancer and struggling to keep warm, regardless of their energy supplier. The latter is a service which has grown significantly since 2014, doubling in size to a team of eight in 2018 due to demand and a joint ambition to reach more people.  

Since 2017, Lloyds Banking Group’s partnership with Macmillan supports their mission to help reduce the impact of a cancer diagnosis on peoples’ finances. Customers of Lloyds, Halifax and Bank of Scotland benefit from a dedicated Cancer Support Team trained by Macmillan providing free, confidential specialist support on personal banking, savings, loans, mortgages and insurance products. The partnership has a two-way referral process which transfers bank customers to Macmillan’s Support Line Service for additional emotional and practical support, whilst referring customers who contact Macmillan to the bank’s Cancer Support Team. The partnership has supported 5,000 customers to date, offering a number of options including suppression of fees and refunding overdraft charges.

As in the example of Lloyds, we needn’t forget that businesses themselves, like Scottish Widows, another partner of Macmillan, can also be an important gateway to access wider support. Insurance companies in particular know they are likely to be an early port of call for people diagnosed with long-term limiting health conditions, and so can play a critical early role in offering further assistance and guidance while they have a customer in need on the phone.

Holistic response rooted in lived experience and insight

How exactly are businesses and charities creating a new agenda that meets customer and beneficiary needs more closely?

It all starts with building trust among customers. Many organisations believe they have the right solutions available, but it’s identifying those in need which is tricky.  How comfortable are any of us with disclosing our vulnerability, especially to an organisation we don’t feel naturally inclined to trust?  People who deal with customers must have the awareness, empathy and permission to ensure customers feel able to seek guidance and get their needs properly assessed. 

By working with charities, businesses can improve their ability to reach vulnerable customers, understand more about their lives and make things better (or do less harm).  Natasha Parker, Head of Corporate Partnerships at Macmillan says: “By bringing our wide-ranging insights to the table, Macmillan can help identify simple ways of giving vulnerable customers who are living with cancer a better experience, whilst also providing referral services on a targeted basis.”

Compelling business case with evidence of real impact

Ok, this all sounds interesting and could convince an optimist, but how do you drive real change and create a business case that is truly compelling and cannot be ignored by senior (and perhaps more sceptical) decision-makers?

We heard how for any creative solution to take hold, leadership buy-in is essential.  Insights and case studies help paint a picture but developing a business case means understanding both the costs of inaction and the benefits of action in commercial terms.  Anecdotally, creating more flexible service options helps build trust, satisfy ESG investors and meet increasingly exacting demands from regulators.  Moreover, it delivers positive impact on a human level.  Working with charities can give businesses the rich content and insights to move beyond anecdote.

Lloyds Banking Group shared how Macmillan helped them create a report to evidence to executives what the experience of their customers living with cancer was really like.  After a short period of disbelief, asking “we don’t do that, do we?” processes were quickly improved.  Likewise, npower worked with Macmillan to “understand the problem” from the point of view of their customers with cancer, and to set out the case for why and how the business could do better.

The npower and Lloyds partnerships demonstrate what can be achieved through collaboration: measures like the successful implementation of a customer fund and the creation of a specialist team trained by Macmillan have achieved real change for vulnerable customers. And evidence from these builds the business case for ongoing collaboration and operational change.

Optimism versus realism?                

So, in summary, there is scope to move the debate on and accelerate change?

Well, yes, we think so….  Realists can become optimists and wake up to the potential of an enlightened approach to dealing with customers, regardless of the barriers they face in their everyday lives.  What is needed though is some bold thinking and creativity to share information and draw attention to the shared evidence and cases for action that already exist in companies and charities.

And, bolder still, collaborations can be between multiple companies and multiple charities.  Life is complicated; creative solutions are needed.

For more information on this event and the thinking that emerged, please get in touch with me at CAF ( or Natasha Parker at Macmillan Cancer Support (

The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. Call us free on 0808 808 00 00, 7 days a week, 8am-8pm.