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Editorial: Do we have too many charities?

Third Sector, 9 November 2010

Stephen Cook, editor

Stephen Cook, editor

The charitable impulse is often individualistic and irrational, but would new charities be more sensible if they teamed up with existing ones, asks Stephen Cook

Andrew Hind, the former chief executive of the Charity Commission, confided in a recent lecture that, in six years in the job, he never got used to there being 180,000 charities on the register for England and Wales.

The question that emerges, he said, is whether charities that could achieve more by collaboration are engaging in unnecessary competition. And he told his audience of trustees they had a moral duty to consider whether collaboration or merger would be better for beneficiaries.

This sparked a feisty debate among Third Sector readers, and was followed by a report from the sector consultancy nfpSynergy that concluded that competition is precisely what produces collaboration or merger and helps charities to improve.

The sheer number of charities clearly preoccupies the commission. Its previous chair, Geraldine Peacock, also felt there were too many of them and not enough mergers. The new chief executive, Sam Younger, said last week that he was surprised how little collaboration there was.

But he also acknowledged why this was: that "a lot of charities are set up by those passionate about the way they do things". That's precisely it: the charitable impulse is often individualistic, independent, oppositional, untidy, inefficient, irrational - and therefore exasperating to the bureaucratic mind.

Take the charity being set up by the parents of Linda Norgrove, who was killed in Afghanistan. It would be more sensible for them to ask for donations to an existing organisation with a proven track record. But this is not about being sensible - it's about something more intense and visceral.

There is friction between those who would let a thousand flowers bloom and those who would tidy up the flowerbeds, build more gates and make it all more rational. The commission encourages new charities to join forces with existing ones: does it try hard enough - or too hard?

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