Peter Stanford: emotion must not blind us to the benefits of mergers

There has never been a better time to consider the options, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Mergers are always a sensitive subject for trustees. Most of us contribute our time and expertise to a particular charity because, by and large, we think it is wonderful and does the best work in its field. But in the competitive world that is the third sector today, we can be slightly too keen to draw dividing lines between us and other organisations in the same area. There are few charities not feeling the pinch of the economic recession at present, in terms of lost jobs, falling income and reduced funding for projects.

Senior management teams are at full stretch keeping costs down, juggling present constraints with future potential and, in some cases, fighting for survival. It is hard for them, under such pressure, to raise their eyes from the detail. But as trustees with an overseeing role, we have a responsibility to do precisely that.

There have always been plenty of voices urging charities to consider partnerships, closer working relationships and mergers. I can remember going to a symposium at the Mansion House back in the early 1990s, when Princess Diana urged 'her' charities to do precisely that. There were plenty of nods of approval and a warm round of applause, but little action. And I include myself in that.

But now, as the Charity Commission has been vocal in telling us, there has never been a better time to think about mergers. While managers are poring over the hours and pay levels of fundraisers, financial controllers and receptionists, slicing here, cheese-paring there, potentially much bigger savings could be made if charities joined forces to service the functions of these employees.

The argument should not be seen only as a financial one, however. Trustees are, in one sense, representatives of the community. In that community, I have always failed to detect much brand awareness about individual charities in particular fields. Yes, the public admires the charity that campaigns for older people, but they're not sure if it is Help the Aged, Age Concern or Saga.

It is this realisation that lies behind the recent high-profile merger of Help the Aged and Age Concern - not to mention that of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund and the Cancer Research Campaign. We should all be addressing this challenge, whatever our particular circumstances.

For various reasons, we instinctively recoil from seeing our own charity sacrifice some of its unique identity. But are they really valid reasons not to explore possible mergers? Might there be a viable way of compromising that identity to facilitate a meeting of minds with a rival organisation? Could you at least agree to exploratory talks? Could one plus one equal not just two, but three or four?

These are tricky, troubling waters, but the advantages of mergers between charities are so evident that the issue cannot simply be swept under the carpet or dismissed by a casual recital of the disadvantages - which, on closer examination, may not really be problems at all. The worst offenders in this, I'm afraid, are often trustees. We allow our emotional investment in a particular cause - a cause that, sometimes, we have nurtured into adulthood - to get in the way. It is a variation on the theme of 'founder-member syndrome.'

As an antidote, I try to remember a line drilled into me by the founder of Aspire every time we faced a difficult choice that might involve trampling on individual feelings: "The cause is always more important than any individual."

As trustees, we are there to make sure that our cause, whatever it is, is tackled in the most effective way possible. If that means at least contemplating a merger, then contemplate it we should.

- Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, chairman of Aspire and director of the Longford Trust

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