What makes charities and startups a magic mix?

Carefree and Impala winning Best Digital Innovation at the 2022 Business Charity Awards

Now that we have the Best Digital Innovation Award under our belts - let's talk scrappiness, authentic alignment and knowing when you have to forge your own path...

A couple of years ago, Nesta and Save the Children ran some research into how important startup collaborations with the third sector could be to accelerate social impact. It pointed to the institutional, financial, legal and cultural barriers that block most collaborations but drew up this very fancy list of how each side could benefit from the other 👇


There were only two collaborations shortlisted for the Best Digital Innovation Award at the 2022 Business Charity Awards last night:- Farewill and Macmillan Cancer Support for their work to revolutionise legacy giving and Impala, alongside little-old Carefree for opening up the distribution of tens of thousands of donated hotel breaks for unpaid carers.

Impala and Farewill were formed at around the same time, and have both raised $30m+ in capital but the dichotomy between Carefree as a small charity (circa £360k turnover) and Macmillan at £194,889,000 is pretty huge. So what did we do to (a) secure a partnership with one of Europe's top start-ups and (b) deliver so much new tech capability in such a short space of time without the big-budget lines?

Product-market fit

Firstly we sought product-market fit with our startup collaborator.

Carefree and Impala are like two hands of the same set of gloves. Formed separately but with the same ambition to break new ground in the travel industry, we complement each other's core product offerings. Impala wants to deliver hotels the capacity to innovate by enabling them to share their data/inventory with other platforms that can help improve guest experiences and drive more bookings. Whilst Carefree wants to offer hotels an easy, automated way to donate rooms and accept requests from carers that we've verified. In other words, when Impala's engineers are putting time into developing new features, the improvements they make to help us do what we do better don't tend to deviate from their core product roadmap.

Asking startups on a clock to drive growth for their investors to step away from doing things that help their everyday business, isn't a runner. Great collaborations happen when you enable them to do what they already do as a business in a way that delivers social value for society.

Shared ways of working

We also made it up as we went along.

The graph laid out in Nesta's report for suggested modes of collaboration (copied below) presupposes that third sector organisations should find a way to pay startups or provide them with some sort of valuable resource to get them to impart their innovation to us. I'm guessing this would rule out the 93% of charities in the UK with a budget of under £500k though.


Admittedly we're an innately digital organisation - we knew what functionality we needed to be able to create with a partner and just asked Impala if they'd join us on the journey.

Incidentally, we also asked Comic Relief for £47k to fund it as part of their Tech for Good build programme but didn't make it past the first round in the application process.

And yes, we're still gutted that we didn't get it but there's a broader point to be made to funders launching digital pots (and believe me the sector needs more of them) to look at why top organisations like Carefree keep falling through the cracks. They are far from the only ones to turn us down.

But back to the story of how we secured the startup partnership, built the tech, delivered the project and won the Third Sector Award for Best Digital Innovation before Comic Relief's Tech for Good cohort have submitted their first-year evaluation.

The first thing we did was run a quick sprint to test how our teams would work together and some of the operational flows that would be required for the API set-up between our platforms in May 2021.

Impala fronted the room cost for 50 carer breaks to be released via Carefree’s booking hub. 312 out of 350 invited carers logged on within 20 minutes of the rooms being released and all were booked within a day - giving instant validation of the user need. After that, we dived in to build out the full API integration to onboard all of Carefree’s accommodation donors (129 properties), connect their inventory to our booking hub and make it possible for any of Impala’s other hotel clients to easily gift rooms in the future.

We're now in the process of distributing 40,000 room nights with an average commercial rate-card value of £100 per night. That’s an extra £4m in accommodation resources for carers breaks, at no additional cost to the public purse. An extraordinary outcome for individual carers and the social care sector.

And there can be more great outcomes like this, but I find the current line of thinking around modes of startup and third sector collaboration too skewed towards things that can help large charities undertake a digital transition over product collaborations that can deliver direct outcomes for beneficiaries and society.

The charity sector needs to do many of the same things as the tech scene:- attract talent, foster entrepreneurship and secure new investment that can create the positive disruption it needs. Large charities are already in a position to buy all of this. We'd be far better off making small charities with big ideas and the scrappiness to implement them the focal point of future startup and third sector partnerships.

Mutual respect

We've never been made to feel anything less than awesome at what we do by the Impala team, who recognise how complicated it is to build a social intervention with a small team on a small budget and don't see their commercial experience, skills and higher salaries as a marker that we are less than them in some way.

Giving their engineers the chance to work on a real use case with Carefree as they develop their own core product has been an invaluable learning experience for them and us. For example, one of the most complex aspects of this project has been to make sure that we are only capturing genuine excess capacity and accommodating the specific inventory release requirements of each individual hotel partner. We’ll often find ourselves building operational flows to work through these challenges in real-time, with Impala updating some of its own procedures to make it easier for Carefree to keep track of booking confirmations and refusals. This happy pic of Joey our CTO with their Senior Product Manager Eleanor says it all:


Dedication to success

Since bringing Carefree's booking hub online powered by Impala with real-time inventory in early Nov 2021, over 1000 nights have been booked by carers, who have scored the platform 9 out of 10 for ease of use. The health and social impact has also been immediate, with 94% seeing an improvement in their wellbeing and 92% reporting that they couldn’t have taken a break without the initiative.

Together we are continually capturing data on how much of the donated inventory available is being utilised to help improve booking conversion and making continuous improvements to the user experience based on live feedback loops.

We're still at the beginning of the journey of this project's impact and both organisations are fully dedicated to seeing it through until every full-time unpaid carer in the UK is able to access an annual break.

Final words

Impala represents just one of the future-facing companies out there that understand its responsibility to build products with purpose and public benefit. Designing for sustainability is the new normal and those startups need the expertise of the third sector to guide them in how to do it.

Let's aim high, find the match-ups and see many more charities and startups changing the ESG game together.