Editorial: Age charities face biggest challenges yet as they prepare for merger

It's little wonder that all eyes are on Age Concern England and Help the Aged as they prepare to merge next April. It will be the biggest merger since the creation of Cancer Research UK, the ultimate super-charity.

CRUK cut 130 jobs when it was launched in 2002, but in its first year it created 300 more, while saving £2m in costs and boosting its income by £32m. Its income last year was £468m. The age charities are not quite as large - last year ACE turned over £86.5m to Help the Aged's £79.6m - but the merged organisation will rank as the UK's 22nd-largest fundraising charity. After months of preparation, they are seeking a chief executive to lead the new body (Third Sector Online, 18 July). Finding someone qualified to take on the challenge will be the first step of a testing journey.

Despite sharing a vision, the two charities are very different. ACE was established 68 years ago as a trust and is part of the federation of independent Age Concern charities. Today it is known for its campaigning and its financial independence, secured through trading and commercial activities, which is largely driven by its trading arm, Acent. Help the Aged, a company, is 32 years old. It has strengths in research, especially since its 2001 merger with Research into Ageing, and in international work, through its links with HelpAge International.

The merger will also bring together the charities' business operations, including their charity shops, Acent, Age Concern's struggling membership body Heyday and Help the Aged's Intune, which sells financial services.

The charities expect the merger to cut costs, increase their income and make their services more effective. Experience shows this is hard to achieve: the Charity Commission's document on mergers warns that most merged charities find their costs remain the same and less than half see improved service delivery.

Even CRUK struggled at times. The original interim chief executive left after only three months, its first permanent chief executive resigned after five and it lost several senior staff early on. It achieved leadership stability 18 months in, under Alex Markham.

Other concerns include unforeseen costs, the potential loss of income as donors who supported both charities reduce their contributions, loss of brand recognition and clashes of organisational culture. For ACE and Help the Aged, there are the added challenges of garnering support from stakeholders, including the local Age Concerns, and dealing with the fallout from Heyday. There is also a £13m deficit in ACE's pension fund.

But ACE and Help the Aged are going into the process with their eyes open. Their chosen governance model, with 15 trustees and a consultative forum to advise on age sector issues, will surely be more manageable than ACE's complex existing arrangement involving 39 trustees.

They have appointed Richard Buxton, who led the Community Fund into the merger with the New Opportunities Fund, to oversee the merger, with support from staff from both charities. They also hope the new chief executive will be in post four months before the merger to plan for a smooth transition.

If planning brings success, the on-off merger discussions of the past decade and the intensive talks in the past year should stand the new charity in good stead.

Emma Maier is deputy editor or Third Sector, emma.maier@haymarket.com.

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