Focus: Finance and Governance - Outlook - Merger is not always the best option

Paul Palmer is professor of voluntary sector management at the Centre for Charity Effectiveness in the Cass Business School.

Diversity and choice may be the buzz-words of the moment, but they do not seem to apply to charities and mergers.

The perception is that there are too many charities. Smaller ones, in particular, are viewed as inefficient organisations that should be merged or taken over. In response to the Government's Strategy Unit report, the Charity Commission is to offer "enhanced advice and support" to charities that are contemplating mergers. It is also setting up a register of mergers.

But what evidence is offered for such views - or, indeed, that charity mergers actually work?

This summer, I decided to walk along Hadrian's Wall. One day I went to a Roman fort run by a local charity established 30 years ago. Two miles away was the National Trust Roman fort managed by English Heritage.

Thus, in one of the least populated areas of England, two charities managing identical enterprises were in competition within two miles of each other: a large national charity with a huge membership and a small local charity that, for a modest fee, arranged for an actor playing a Roman soldier to show me round.

Interestingly, the National Trust has developed an innovative partnership with a statutory body. The trust owns the site, but it is managed by English Heritage - nevertheless, trust membership will still secure your access to the site.

Neither attraction has reported any difficulties with its finances or with volunteer recruitment. Information on each site was freely available - diversity and choice were both in abundant evidence.

The next day I was in Haltwhistle, a town eight miles further on. In this town's case I saw how rationalisation had removed diversity and choice.

In Haltwhistle I found a train station that was still served by the original Newcastle-to-Carlisle service. However, the track and service south to Alston had long gone.

A small and excellent preservation society - yet another charity - ran a steam service for a few miles from Alston. When I asked whether the dream was to restore the connection with Haltwhistle, I was told that the A69 now cut through the line.

The line was abandoned because, according to the experts at the Ministry of Transport, the new all-weather road had made it redundant.

Every year, though, the road is blocked at some point during the winter.

The train always used to run. This community lost choice and diversity.

The charity sector must not do the same.


- The perception is that there are too many charities

- Smaller charities are often viewed as inefficient and ripe for merger or takeover

- There is little evidence offered for such beliefs or, indeed, that charity mergers actually work.

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