Craig Dearden-Phillips: Names do matter and they don't have to disappear when two charities merge

Names carry important messages about values, heritage and identity, says our columnist

Craig Dearden-Phillips
Craig Dearden-Phillips

What's in a name? Well, quite a lot in the world of charities. You see this when mergers or takeovers come on to the agenda. For many charities, keeping their name above the door is one of the red lines where a stampede towards merger judders to a halt - even if this increases the risk of the charity going out of business.

I used to think this was plain daft. Having taken an organisation I founded into a successful merger, I just couldn't get my head around people who would, when pushed, rather lose their organisation than their name. But a couple of things have made me think again.

The first is that our own merger - that of Speaking Up with Advocacy Partners - didn't see a takeover of one organisation's identity by the other. We forged a wholly new identity that drew on the heritage of both organisations. Trustees and staff got involved and we all celebrated the result. Feelings of loss were offset by a bigger sense of our new start - as VoiceAbility.

The second prod to think again was a realisation that names and brands matter deeply in the charity world, more perhaps than we imagine - and not in a trivial or petty way. Names carry important messages about values, heritage and identity to which staff devote their careers, users offer their trust and funders invest their cash. The potential loss of a name, therefore, can feel like the loss of something very important.

A takeover doesn't always make sense either. Carelessly taking over an excellent local charity is like mixing a fine Bordeaux into a case of Aussie Shiraz and expecting it, somehow, to influence the resulting blend.

Rather than create a disappointing mix, might it not be far better for both sides to agree to move the Bordeaux to a larger organisation's cool, well-maintained cellar where it can both be enhanced over time and increase the value of the cellar as a whole? One way to do just this is through a group structure in which one charity operates as a supported subsidiary of the larger body. It enjoys the benefits of operational independence while buttressed by the capabilities of the larger player.

Another is a formal strategic partnership in which infrastructure and fundraising support is traded for access to the smaller charity's talent for innovation. None of this happens without trust - but for trust to take root, both parties, particularly the smaller one, must feel they aren't going to be swallowed up. If a merger is just about being absorbed into a bigger brand, with none of the old identity intact, it actually makes sense for the smaller party to fight on alone.

None of this is a case against mergers. It is a case for saying that there are ways for larger, stronger organisations to work with smaller ones without scorching the delicate ecology that makes the small charity an attractive partner in the first place.

Craig Dearden-Phillips is chief executive of Stepping Out and a Liberal Democrat councillor in Suffolk

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