Are forces charities too 'old-fashioned' to change their ways?

Lord Ashcroft's blunt review of military charities calls for greater consolidation and collaboration. Annette Rawstrone looks at the report's proposals and whether they will be implemented

Lord Ashcroft has called for greater consolidation and collaboration of military charities
Lord Ashcroft has called for greater consolidation and collaboration of military charities

A maze of more than 2,000 organisations with overlapping objectives, often competing with each other or duplicating services, and rarely collaborating: not many charities for the armed forces will have enjoyed reading the verdict on them last month by Lord Ashcroft, the Prime Minister's Special Representative on Veterans' Transition.

"These charities range from the extremely large, such as one with an income of over £130m, to one-person ventures," the review says. "They cover a huge spectrum of need, are a mix of general and niche provision, national organisations and local, and the very competent to the (frankly) ineffective. While individual charities may believe they are making the best use of funds as an organisation, collectively they are not."

Ashcroft's Veterans' Transition Review, submitted to the Secretary of State for Defence, focuses on the 350 charities with objects relevant to its remit - relief of need, benevolence, resettlement, rehabilitation and mental health. This group has a total annual income of about £400m, with most of it concentrated in the largest 50 charities.

His main proposals are for greater cooperation, collaboration and consolidation among armed forces charities, publication of a directory of accredited forces charities and the establishment of a single 24-hour point of contact and information for people in need of help.

The report has been cautiously welcomed by armed forces charities and the Ministry of Defence says it is still considering it. But there are already doubts about whether any of the recommendations in the report will be implemented, and some critics think this part of the sector is too old-fashioned and unwilling to change. One key question is how changes would be financed, though some suggest using the fines paid by banks accused of trying to rig the Libor inter-bank lending rate, which are being distributed to armed forces charities.

Most of the recommendations in the report concern the Confederation of Service Charities, Cobseo, which has a membership of 186 of the 350 forces charities that provide care and benevolence. This membership accounts for more than 90 per cent of armed forces charity income.

Asked who would finance any initiatives, a spokeswoman for Cobseo says: "That's the million-dollar question everyone is asking. We haven't got a clue. It could come out of the Libor funding, but no one knows. There are some great ideas, but someone has to put their money where their mouth is. At the moment, no one can give an answer - it depends how seriously the government takes the recommendations."

Lieutenant-General Sir Andrew Ridgway, chair of Cobseo, says that much will depend on the MoD's response. "Our charities are already working out which part they wish to play, then they will integrate with the MoD," he says. "The cooperation and collaboration in the charity sector needs to extend to government."

Ridgway says he believes Ashcroft "missed the point" by portraying the diversity of the sector as a weakness, rather than a strength. Where there is duplication, it's because there is a need, he argues: "A businessman would say it is crazy and should be trimmed to one or two charities, but the charity sector is a uniquely British way of working and a highly effective one."

Air Marshal Chris Nickols, controller of the RAF Benevolent Fund, says the cooperation and collaboration already happening among military charities, both bilaterally and through Cobseo, should not be underestimated. He believes charities look regularly at consolidation opportunities, whether through increased collaboration or, occasionally, full mergers.

"The Ashcroft review is likely to reinforce the need to do this regularly, but is unlikely in itself to be the impetus, given its lack of detail on specific charities and their work," he says. Cobseo can act as a "driver for change", Nickols adds, but does not have the means of funding any substantial initiatives.

"It should be remembered that, as a membership organisation, it needs to gain consensus from members for action rather than merely directing them. It is important to recognise that improved cooperation and collaboration between the MoD, government and the charity sector is just as necessary as that within the third sector."

Commodore Andrew Cameron, chief executive of Combat Stress and a Cobseo board member, says he regards the Ashcroft review as an audit rather than as fresh thinking, and that much good work is already happening to further the recommendations - the quality control of the sector and the single call centre, for example.

"I spoke to Lord Ashcroft after his presentation and he said he would stay close to it because these issues are close to his heart," he says. "He said he would continue to work to ensure the recommendations were acted upon."

Retired Lieutenant Commander Patrick Lyster-Todd, now a charity consultant, believes that the big organisations should merge, citing the overlap of work between the Royal British Legion and SSAFA. "In the past they have looked at coming together but decided not to," he says. "I wonder whether this was down to self-interest. Age Concern and Help the Aged merged successfully. I hear it was not without niggles, but was good for economies of scale."

But Air Vice-Marshal The Honourable David Murray, chief executive of SSAFA, says he believes the way forward is through greater collaboration between existing charities and points out that his charity has been working successfully with the Royal British Legion and Combat Stress for decades.

Some charities not in Cobseo have a different perspective. Nicholas Harrison, managing director of Soldier On!, a community charity that provides career management and employment support to service people made redundant on medical grounds, fears the review will be "discussed and debated indefinitely. Many of the recommendations are to come into force in 2015, but in a year of transitioning government will anyone care about the transitioning needs of service personnel?"

Harrison questions whether Cobseo is the best organisation to move things forward and fears non-members will be excluded from initiatives such as the proposed call centre and directory of accredited charities. "It could easily become a cabal for the larger charities, and regional, smaller but equally valuable organisations will not get a look in," he says. "We're not a member of Cobseo. It does have the appearance of a closed shop, but I am currently investigating and speaking with the organisation to find out more."

Harrison says he has struggled to find other charities to work with. "Partnership is better than merger because we can pool resources and work for a common cause, but not lose independence," he says. "But we've approached many charities and said 'let's work together' and have not been well received, perhaps because we're all chasing the same pound.

"On one occasion we were asked to provide an employment workshop to a group of injured soldiers who were part of an event sponsored by another large charity. That charity cancelled our workshop, preventing us from assisting the injured."

Such concerns are echoed by John Watts, a former ambassador for the RAF Benevolent Fund, who believes most of the sector is old-fashioned and has little commercial experience. "Cobseo is a clique of very senior officers, probably all protecting their own positions. They are reluctant to have outsiders as trustees or operating executives in their charities. Cobseo is a real boys' club. These people will resist any change. There are far too many charities for the sector and they are all competing for the same pot of money. Some of the charities are tiny but they all have management structures that dissipate their fundraising efforts."

Watts expects that few charities will accept the recommendations and the review will be "kicked into the long grass".

The income of the big forces charities

The top seven by total income (voluntary income in brackets)

1. Royal British Legion £132.82m (£82.89m)
2. SSAFA £50.37m (£7.98m)
3. Help for Heroes £40.60m (£32.59m)
4. Blind Veterans UK £24.20m (£18.38m)
5. RAF Benevolent Fund £17.30m (£11.57m)
6. Combat Stress £15.57m (£8.34m)
7. ABF The Soldiers' Charity £13.20m (£8.22m)

Lord Ashcroft's key recommendations

- Encourage, through Cobseo, greater cooperation, collaboration and consolidation in the armed forces charity sector.

- Establish a directory of accredited armed forces charities that meet quality criteria in terms of governance and effectiveness. Inclusion in the directory would be necessary for the charity to be eligible for public funding, referral or signposting. The directory would be run by Cobseo.

- Make Cobseo the single point of advice to HM Treasury on the allocation to armed forces charities of fines imposed on banks that tried to rig the Libor inter-bank lending rate. Distribution is decided by a committee convened by the Armed Forces Covenant Reference Group chaired by the Cabinet Office.

- Establish a single 24-hour contact centre for the Veterans Welfare Service and third sector with a single telephone number and web address.

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