Debra Allcock Tyler: The obsession with mergers ignores the principle of choice

The Covid crisis provides fertile ground for the nonsense that there are too many charities and we should rationalise

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

Arthur and I are engaged in a long-running battle of wills. He loves to chew things made of fabric and has a particular penchant for socks, of which I don’t approve.  And so our days pass thus: he nicks socks from the laundry, I take them off him and replace them with an “approved” toy.

I am human, and he is dog, and I make the decisions.  

Our society is built around this notion that some of us are better placed to know what’s good for others. The rich and powerful are “human” and the poor and disadvantaged are “dog” and the former know what’s best for the latter.  

The unspoken assumption that having money confers some sort of superior judgement is an infuriating throwback to the Victorian patriarchal notion of charity – rich white people (usually men) decide to help (some) others (those they have decided deserve it).  

So some humans get to determine the nature, timing and structure of support for other humans, reinforcing the notion of an amorphous bunch of “needy” who neither want nor deserve real agency or choice and who should be grateful for the “approved toy” they’re given. 

Beggars can’t be choosers, and all that bollocks.

I’m seeing a worrying return to this paradigm – but now it’s less overt and more often cleverly disguised behind narratives about cost and efficiency. 

Too many charities; we should merge; setting up new charities is poor economics, and so on. And the Covid crisis provides fertile ground for this nonsense to perpetuate.

Here’s the thing. It also makes economic sense for small, independent coffee shops to merge – but who wants a world where the only choice is Costa? 

Fewer chocolate companies might mean economies of scale, but do we really want to live in a world where the only choc on offer is a Kit Kat or a Snickers?  

We insist that consumers deserve choice. We enshrine it in law, in fact. But the same principle doesn’t appear to apply to those in need, or those who support them.  

Take charities that focus on homelessness and so often bear the brunt of the “too many of you” trope. 

Never mind that they’re actually very different organisations doing different things in different ways – the underlying attitude seems to be that homeless folk don’t care who helps them. 

Well, from my experience, they are not an amorphous group of the “needy”, but people with personalities, stories, expectations, likes and dislikes – just like any other human being. 

So why shouldn’t they be allowed to choose who they get help from? And why should they be uncritically grateful for what they’re given? Isn’t it their human right to be helped?  

Surely this notion of choice also extends to donors and volunteers? Or are we really saying that consumers are entitled to a choice about where they spend, but donors should have the options of where to give reduced to a small number of “approved” charities because it’s more “efficient”?

The obsession with merger and rationalisation on the grounds of cost is one-dimensional and ignores the incredibly important principle of choice and agency that those you serve, and those who support you, deserve. 

So, don’t allow this crisis to force you to merge if you don’t really want to. Indeed, maybe this is a time to de-merge – some great charities have come out of existing ones. For example, the NCVO “birthed” Age Concern and the National Association of Citizens Advice Bureaux, as they were, and the YHA and Bond.

There’s no shame in choosing to shrink, or even splitting your charity into smaller ones. More choice for beneficiaries, donors and volunteers cannot be anything other than A Good Thing.  

None of us should be treated like “dog” – we are all human, and all deserve choice. And Arthur can have the socks and the toy. Why not?

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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