How charities can influence commissioning

In 2016, Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales found that small and local charities were being unfairly overlooked for funding by commissioners in favour of larger charities. 

Former commissioner and now third sector consultant Fiona Sheil writes what charities can do to make commissioning work for them. Read her blog below.

I look back at my voluntary sector days and think how differently I would have approached working with local authorities. It’s important to understand the pressures they face but also to be tactical in winning influence. Having been on both sides of the table, here’s what I’ve learned about what charities can do to effectively influence commissioners and secure funding.

Be an early influencer

Commissioning can take one or two years until the contract (or other agreement) is signed. Throughout this time, the commissioning process will shift between moving sporadically, seeing sudden bursts of activity and at other times, periods of silence. This can make commissioning hard to engage.

The single most important thing you can do is to engage early and shape the early thinking about what needs are to be met, and how and why. By early, I mean before the commissioner has even got around to thinking about the contract. You should try to shape the commissioner’s thinking on what are the most critical needs and values, what aspects of service design are the most significant, what outcomes matter most and make sure users’ voices and good approaches to service delivery are at the fore.

This is the golden window of opportunity because commissioners are at their most receptive to solutions and new ideas. Be on the front-foot in shaping knowledge, information and discussions. Don’t assume that commissioners have unshakeable views on these issues or that they have the whole picture regarding information and ideas. Consider this a collaboration and share what you know, be proactive, find out what they know or don’t know and help them fill those gaps. Your insights are invaluable so make sure to offer them.

Understand the commissioner’s priorities and be empathetic  

If we can learn anything from these fractious times, it’s that persuasion and partnership require an open mind and good grace. No matter how difficult relationships have been, they’ll only improve through positive efforts.

Take the time to understand the people you want to influence. What are their pressures? What do their bosses expect from them? What’s their own point of view? (often understanding someone’s work history can help inform this). The more you understand and listen, the greater chance you will have to influence decision making.

Definitely read their latest commissioning strategy and be familiar with the main needs set out in their Joint Strategic Needs Assessment. A really important document is the Medium Term Financial Strategy. This really drives the immediate financial decisions of statutory bodies – so if you read one thing, read this.  

When meeting commissioners, my advice is:

  • Have 1-3 positive, concrete things you want to share – whether it’s ideas or case studies
  • Ask questions – giving them the space to talk is how you’ll pick up information
  • Don’t be put off by a negative reception to your ideas. Listen to why you’re getting any push back and ask questions as to why the commissioner doesn’t agree – getting heard can be a process of negotiation so don’t stop at the first ‘no’!
  • Leave on a positive note and follow up with a thank you and hopefully some further information

Nothing is as helpful as spending face-to-face time with a commissioner. Make time for it and don’t just leave it for contract reviews. Think how to make yourself a partner, not just a contractor.

Don’t be afraid to sell and market the strengths of your charity

I was surprised how little pro-active marketing commissioners receive from charities. Almost none. They won’t know about your results, knowledge and skills if you don’t tell them so create opportunities for commissioners to learn about what you do. Think about how to help them understand what you do and how good your charity is, whether that’s by inviting them to events, posting them a colourful quarterly ‘thank-you’ card or share a powerful case study which demonstrates success. Sometimes commissioners can’t see the woods for the trees so help them see the bigger picture.

Crossing the sectoral boundaries

Provide – or encourage others to provide – opportunities for cross-sector exchange. This could be through seminars and training events on shared interests like research practice or emerging needs and service models. Do this through your local CVS – or to be even less contentious, go for a credible non-sector body like The King’s Fund. If you spend half a day in a room with interesting experts, you can build many bridges, learn alongside your commissioners, and share ideas and experiences.

My own experience has taught me that crossing sectors – taking a secondment or another role – is invaluable and the skills, insights and attitudes that the voluntary sector can bring are exactly what will improve commissioning practices.

Always be prepared to walk away

You should always be in a position where contracting is a choice so be prepared to walk away from a bad deal or a service approach you don’t believe in. Too many charities are subsidising services.  You should aim for full cost recovery or avoid bidding altogether. Try to avoid being entirely financially reliant on contract income or you will become tied to the values and standards of the commissioner. Diversifying your income stream gives you more freedom to pick contracts which work for your charity. Working with public services needs to be a choice based on what is best for your values, the people you support and what difference your involvement makes. Many excellent charities know when not to take on contracts but find other ways to source funding and influence change. Think how you can be most effective and build that path.