More charities should say 'I do' to full-blown mergers

Helen Simmons of the Diocese of London says she's got married, complete with name change. It's time more charities tied the knot.

Helen Simmons
Helen Simmons

This year will be like no other in the past decade as the charity sector is threatened with cuts to almost every line of its budget. I think to myself: what a great time to get married!

In light of my recent nuptials, I find myself thinking about the equivalent in the world of charities - a full-blown merger (such as my marriage) versus 'collaboration' (or, to keep up the metaphor, our pre-marital cohabitation).

The voluntary sector merger count remains low, despite all the assistance that's been out there for several years now. And, at risk of contradicting what I said in an earlier article, I believe charities should be looking for full-blown merger opportunities and stop faffing about with "let's try to do a joint project first; let's just collaborate; let's start by sharing space". For goodness sake, the grey hairs are spreading, as is the midriff - the music is about to stop and more than one chair has been pulled away.

In a different economic climate, I would advocate the 'slowly-slowly' approach. However, 1 April will bring the first serious funding cuts that many have ever experienced. Even if your organisation has had a bad year before, it probably bounced back in the next one. Not this time, I fear.

The sector has a tendency to drag these things out and to be overly consultative; to value differences above similarities. The matter isn't helped by the Charity Commission sitting on the fence. "It is not part of our agenda to push charities towards merger," the regulator says. "Diversity and independence are important strengths in the charitable sector and we recognise that every charity has its own distinctive contribution to make to society."

Surely my husband and I have not ceased to make a "distinctive contribution to society" by getting married. We haven't stopped being a scientist and an accountant - in fact, he's become a scientist who can put together a budget for research bids, and I have become an accountant who understands more about Alzheimer's, Multiple Sclerosis and Down's Syndrome.

It's important to me that my husband and I share the same surname as our two children. It's important that we publicly show our commitment to each other. It also simplifies legal and financial issues.

It has also pleased and surprised family and friends who thought it would never happen. For many years, my husband did not want to get married - he was, in effect, faffing about. The nicest thing of all is probably the joy of those closest to us who have spent 10 years wondering when it was all going to go wrong.

For charities, there are great advantages to a full-blown merger - better representation for your beneficiaries, more clout, economies of scale, better internal learning and knowledge sharing and less statutory reporting. There is also the ability to pick the best of everything and ditch the dross - whether it's the best outcome reporting system or, dare I say, the best committee members.

Perhaps the best thing, as for us, is that your stakeholders might take you more seriously. And you can keep your own name if you want to.

Helen Simmons is finance director at the Diocese of London.

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