Better Together - a partnership between Cancer Focus and Lilac

The most successful collaborations are based around sound strategic reasons for working together. This case study shows how two organisations of different sizes can bring their assets together to improve services for shared beneficiaries.

The collaborative project

Better Together is a collaborative partnership between Cancer Focus and Lilac.

Its aim is to improve the lives of people in the Mid Ulster area by providing access to health promotion and cancer support services to meet their needs in a high quality caring environment.

From an early stage, Roisin Foster, the Chief Executive Officer of Cancer Focus and Margaret Campbell, the Manager of Lilac, could see the potential for an innovative partnership which would provide better quality services to people affected by cancer in the Cookstown area.

The partnership would however need to build upon the complementary strengths of their two very different organisations.

Cancer Focus is the new name for the Ulster Cancer Foundation and it delivers a range of services throughout Northern Ireland. As a regional charity with a large number of employees and strong UK and EU links, Cancer Focus’ strength is its professional approach to service delivery.

“This collaboration is very positive. There is no threat to either organisation. We do not want to take them over. There is no competition. We just want to reach more people – and so does Lilac.”
Roisin Foster, Cancer Focus

Lilac (Living is Life After Cancer) is a volunteer-led charity based in Cookstown which delivers services and support to people who have been diagnosed with cancer. Lilac’s strengths include its local knowledge, its reputation and its strong community connections.

“The partnership has flourished due to our mutual trust and respect. Lilac and Cancer Focus understand the importance of working together to utilise expertise and local knowledge. None of us is as good as all of us together.”
Margaret Campbell, Lilac

The partnership began with an award from the Building Change Trust to explore the potential for collaboration and to pilot the placement of some Cancer Focus’ services at Lilac’s premises in Cookstown.

As with most successful collaborations in the VCSE sector, there were sound strategic reasons for the two organisations to work together. At the time, Lilac’s Union Street premises in Cookstown were in need of refurbishment and repair and, due to the community-based and volunteer-led nature of Lilac, these premises could not always be guaranteed to be open and contactable during office hours. Cancer Focus, on the other hand, was keen to develop its presence in the Mid-Ulster area by working in partnership with existing local charities.

There was a quick-win for the Better Together partnership when it made a successful joint bid to South West Action for Rural Development (SWARD) to provide mobile cancer prevention services in rural areas for two years. For this bid to succeed, suitable premises were needed in the Mid-Ulster area. Through discussion with Lilac, it was agreed that Cancer Focus would use Lilac’s premises in Cookstown as a base, not only for this project but also to improve the range of services available generally.

This successful joint bid to SWARD was an encouraging early example of how the partnership approach could deliver better services to people affected by cancer in the Mid-Ulster area.

But from the beginning, there was an understanding that it is not ultimately organisations that work together – people do.

Time and energy was invested in building trust and developing the relationships between the people involved in collaborative working at all levels in the organisations. At a very practical level, a steering group was established to provide leadership for the project. This required considerable commitment from the Cancer Focus senior management team, Lilac’s part-time staff member and representatives from the Lilac management committee.

The partnership has also invested appropriately in its governance. With the assistance of CollaborationNI, a collaboration agreement was negotiated and a Strategic Plan is currently being drafted. Protocols and procedures were put in place.

There is also recognition of the need to make the Better Together project financially sustainable in the long term.  Cancer Focus and Lilac have set up a joint fundraising committee which fundraises locally for the partnership.

Better Together made a successful application to the Building Change Trust’s Enabling Fund in 2013 for funding for a dedicated Better Together staff member.

Currently Cancer Focus and Lilac work together out of Lilac’s Union Street premises in Cookstown. These premises have been refurbished. Joint branding has been agreed. Cancer Focus employees are now based in the premises and assist Lilac with the running of the facility both financially and administratively.

Most important of all, people in Mid Ulster are now able to access a broader range of better quality services from the Cookstown premises – and Cancer Focus and Lilac are committed to working together to ensure this continues into the future.  

A view from CollaborationNI

CollaborationNI worked with Cancer Focus and Lilac from August 2012.

“The Better Together project is an innovative and genuinely collaborative partnership. It provides an inspiring example of how a large regional organisation can work very effectively with a volunteer led organisation – and create a ‘win-win’ relationship. As an example of good practice, the Better Together model is one that could certainly be shared across the voluntary and community sector.”
Andrew Talbot, CollaborationNI
Legal Adviser

Key elements to the success of the project

  • a clearly defined vision for the collaboration – ‘delivery of better cancer services to people in the Cookstown and wider Mid-Ulster area’
  • complementary strengths
  • sound strategic reasons for the collaboration
  • a quick win
  • support from external bodies such as the Building Change Trust and  CollaborationNI
  • investment in relationships and the need to build trust
  • willingness to make a ‘leap of faith’ and take risks
  • good governance – in terms of the steering group, protocols and processes
  • inspiring and committed leadership

“I have been continually inspired by this collaboration. It is one that could act as an on-going example of best practice in an ever changing sector.”
Leeann Kelly, CollaborationNI Programme Co-ordinator



Every effort is made to ensure that the contents of this document are accurate, but the advice given should not be relied on as a definitive legal statement.