There’s no denying that the past few years have been trying for the third sector. Both increased scrutiny on our work and less funding have meant that leaders have had to re-examine their business models in order to survive. The situation is particularly tricky for mid-size charities, which often fall through the cracks in funding, being at once too big for some grant schemes, but too small to take on government contracts.
Though this is a problem with the system, in the short term it means charity trustees and leaders need to look in the mirror now to assess their organisations' resilience over the next three years and beyond. We must remember that just because our work does good doesn’t mean we have a right to be the ones who continue doing it. Ultimately, our individual organisations are just vessels to get people whatever support they need. For charities whose work is very similar, a straightforward merger could streamline the process of getting support, as well as efficiently pooling resources and talent behind the scenes. It takes a brave chief executive to have to break the news to their trustees, lose their job and make their colleagues redundant. But there is another way. A merger can be as creative as you want it to be – you just have to know what you want.
For some organisations, something integral would be lost should their identity change. When talks began between Community Links and Catch22, both organisations recognised and respected their strengths and differences. Catch22 is a large social business that has a national presence, delivering services in regions across the UK. At Community Links, although we’re known nationally for leading the Early Action Task Force, our heart is in Newham, our work is across east London and our main base is on Barking Road.
We’ve spent the past 40 years actively reaching out to marginalised communities and establishing ourselves as an organisation that is of and for the people of Newham in the first instance and east London generally. For us, and organisations like us, losing our name would have a detrimental impact on our front-line work. If we were to join the Catch22 group it was vital for our service users to know that we were still the same organisation that helped their mums, their brothers, their schools. Catch22 understood the value of our deep immersion in the community and the local roots and connections, and joining the Catch22 group was what worked best for both organisations.
Finding new ways of working together in the sector is essential, and that means finding new models for partnerships. One size will never fit all and not every charity needs to merge. But leaders need to put ego to one side and remember that we do what we do to help people lead better lives. In our case, that meant finding a more efficient way of running the back-office support that has made us stronger. Our back-office structure might look a bit different now that we share it with Catch22, but the front door for the people who need Community Links is the same. And, crucially, that door has stayed open.
Top tips for chief executives to consider
- You need to think early – do you have clear line of sight of how you're going to survive the year after next and beyond? Even if this year is looking fine, it's always better to have these discussions from a position of strength
- Think about what you need from a partnership – and seek a partner that offers things your organisation can't.
- You don't have to lose your identity – consider other options and models.
- A merger is a bold move, and the leadership of both organisations is about to make some tough decisions. Do you have the right people around the table?
- You can't rush it – it will take a while for cultures to fully align.
Arvinda Gohil is chief executive of Community Links