Caron Bradshaw: Charitable endeavour is more than just a numbers game

In a perfect world, every charity would achieve maximum impact and there would be no inefficiency; but our world is populated by wonderfully imperfect people, writes our columnist

Caron Bradshaw says duplication is not always a bad thing
Caron Bradshaw says duplication is not always a bad thing

Sam Younger, who was until last month the chief executive of the Charity Commission, complained recently that the regulator was under-resourced and was being set up to fail. But the part of his speech that appeared to gain the most traction was his suggestion that there were too many charities.

What if two charities doing the same thing results in double the impact?

Younger said there was "duplication, inefficiency and too many poorly run charities". He suggested that the cause derived from people not giving enough consideration to whether to set up a new organisation. I broadly agree, but I don't conclude from this that there are too many charities in existence. The starting point should not be volume.

People often speak as if duplication were a bad thing – that having a single source is superior and will automatically deliver efficiency. But what if two charities doing exactly the same thing side by side results in double the impact? What if, instead of driving competition for limited resources, it increases them, attracting new donors, supporters and volunteers?

Imagine if the inspiring Stephen Sutton, rather than raising funds for the Teenage Cancer Trust, had instead established a new charity: would we really be criticising him for making sense of the tragedy of his circumstances in that way?

Of course, I absolutely agree with Younger that everyone setting up a charity should ask: "What difference will I really make?" And I would ask this not just of charity founders starting out, but of everyone in the sector. A fair few organisations could do with standing back and reflecting on what they are trying to achieve and whether they are making a real difference. But that has nothing to do with the number of charities.

When we boil the issue down to a pure numbers game in the pursuit of efficiency and determine that a failure to deliver 100 per cent impact all the time amounts to unforgiveable waste, we forget the wider benefits arising from social action and charitable endeavour. Charity is not just about the head – it is as much about the heart.

In an ideal world, every charity would achieve maximum impact and there would be no inefficiency. New endeavours would always work and the learning from any failure would be neatly assimilated and folded back into our work so that nothing would ever be lost when things did not go to plan.

Charities that had achieved their purposes would close themselves down and, when a merger was the best thing, ego and vanity would not get in the way of it. But we do not live in a perfect world. We live in a rich and diverse world that is populated by wonderfully imperfect people. Returning to Younger's suggestion that the commission is being set up to fail: if the sector is too big for the resources the commission has at its disposal, its resources should be increased. To suggest the solution is to make the sector smaller is like saying the answer to famine is to reduce the number of mouths to feed rather than addressing the lack of food.

Caron Bradshaw is chief executive of the Charity Finance Group

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