Inspirational conversations: Alix Wooding on cross-sector partnerships

This post is part of a series of conversations with people who make doing good look easy, and inspire us in our work. 

The world of doing good is a tricky one to navigate. It can be hard to stay on track when things aren’t working out exactly how you would like. However, the proof is out there! It keeps us inspired and motivated every day.

We wanted to share that with you, so we’ve been speaking to the people that are taking giant leaps for the rest of us to follow.

Our first conversation is with Alix Wooding. Alix is currently Assistant Director of Engagement at Anthony Nolan. Previously, she was Head of Corporate Partnerships at Macmillan Cancer Support, and Alzheimer’s Society.  She has brokered relationships with Boots, npower, Marks & Spencer, Tesco, and KPMG, creating employee engagement, commercial, and integrated partnerships.

If that isn’t an impressive CV, we don’t know what is. Here’s what she had to say to our founder, Rick Benfield, about cross-sector partnerships.

 [RB]: You’ve said before that the word ‘partnership’ is an over-used term when it comes to relationships between companies and charities – what do you mean by this and what, in your view, turns a relationship into a partnership?

It’s a bit contentious but, yes, I actually think that the use of the word ‘partnership’ can be a bit of a red herring and can leave both sides a bit frustrated and disappointed.  Lots of relationships between charities and companies are transactional: we provide a service for our client (staff engagement, PR, volunteering opportunities) and they retain us because we have the skills and expertise to deliver what they want.

Partnership is different because the relationship is more open, honest and complex.  There is value being delivered to both sides. It isn’t just the exchange of services for money.  The focus is generating shared value.

“Great partnerships are built where an exchange of money couldn’t create the value that the partnership brings.”

[RB]: Do you think it is important for companies and charities to work in true partnership?  

Yes, if we’re going to solve the real problems in society that we’re trying to tackle.  But we need to be aware that it is not an easy thing to do.

We ask for money, because we can translate it into solutions for our beneficiaries, but there are lots of ways to create solutions. Great partnerships are built where an exchange of money couldn’t create the value that the partnership brings.

“Companies don’t fully understand the value that charities can bring, and charities can look at companies as just a chequebook.”

[RB]: Do you think the potential benefits of working together (beyond simple, transactional relationships) are really understood by most companies and charities?

No, not yet.  Companies don’t fully understand the value that charities can bring, and charities can look at companies as just a chequebook.

True partnership has to start from a place of understanding the value that you will bring to one another, and building a relationship of trust and respect.

[RB]: What are the barriers to more transformational partnerships forming?

I think there are lots of barriers to more transformational partnerships forming: none of them are insurmountable, but they can derail many well -intentioned conversations.

  • Time: it takes a long time to build real understanding and trust.
  • Clarity: both sides need to be really clear about the value that the partnership will deliver for their stakeholders, and it needs to be important to them.
  • Culture: there can be big differences in organisational culture; only if you’re aiming for something worthwhile will you persevere when it feels like you’re talking different languages.
  • Evidence: there isn’t great recent data or evidence out there of the real value of working in partnership. That can make it tough for both sides to sell: for fundraisers it’s hard to quantify value over cash, and for businesses it can be hard to quantify the value to brand and perception.

Case study: Macmillan and npower

mac and npower

[RB]: Which partnership that you have been involved with are you most proud of?

An exceptional partnership that I was part of at Macmillan is the long-standing one with npower.

[RB]: What were the main objectives of the partnership?

With npower, we wanted to support people with cancer affected by fuel poverty. We set up a fund, the npower Macmillan Fund, to support npower customers with cancer by allowing them to cap energy bills and write off debt.  This ensures they can keep warm without the worry, and focus on getting well rather than on staying warm.  So far we have helped over 3,000 cancer patients save over £3million.

[RB]: What were the benefits for both sides?

Our first thought when developing the programme was to ensure it really delivered value to people with cancer.  We’ve also found that it’s a great programme to gain recognition for the partnership, and have driven awareness and PR campaigns about it.  The awards we’ve won have helped to keep colleagues at both organisations engaged and inspired.

[RB]: What was the hardest thing about the partnership? 

Like any partnership, we’ve had our ups and downs.  We’ve had to work hard to ensure the processes between the two organisations are slick, and we’ve had to keep the conversation going to ensure the fund has evolved to continue to meet the needs of people with cancer.

“Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve, and the outcome that you want, but stay open about how you will get there.”

[RB]: Finally, what advice would you give to anyone about to embark on a new cross-sector partnership?

  • Be clear about the problem you’re trying to solve, and the outcome that you want, but stay open about how you will get there.  If you’re too fixed, you’re not in a partnership mindset, because you’ve already discounted potential value that your partner could bring.
  • Engage people across both organisations – a partnership is between two organisations, not two people.
  • Give it time, partnerships are not quick to form.
  • There will be benefits to both sides, but both sides have to put in enough effort.
  • Make sure it’s for something you really want: all partnerships take time, effort and energy, so it should be worthwhile.

We hope Alix’s words have inspired you. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact us on 

Click here to read more about the npower and Macmillan partnership.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s