Interview: David Biddle

The chief executive of CRI says larger and smaller partners have learned from each other after a merger

David Biddle says the CRI merger with Sova has been beneficial for all parties
David Biddle says the CRI merger with Sova has been beneficial for all parties

When the crime reduction charities CRI and Sova merged in November 2012, there was a fear that CRI would swallow Sova up according to David Biddle, the chief executive of CRI. But he says the management team has worked hard to ensure that has not happened.

The anxiety was understandable, considering that Sova was struggling financially and had only 150 employees and a turnover of £7.7m in 2010/11, compared with CRI and its 2,000 staff and income of £69m that year.

"A charity might be big, but it does not necessarily want to swallow up and destroy smaller charities," says Biddle. "We can nurture what a small charity does well by being sensible and maintaining that diversity. A large charity can do something to protect the vibrancy of a small charity."

CRI has kept Sova as a distinct entity by retaining its brand and identity and operating it as a subsidiary of the larger organisation. The operating costs have been reduced at Sova to enable it to become financially secure and deliver value for money to commissioners. The chief operating officer at Sova has also remained in post and reports to the Sova board, which in turn answers to the CRI board so the charity can continue its own approach to its work.

Biddle says: "Sova does things differently from CRI and we felt it was important to protect this. When organisations merge, they can easily lose their independence. We were careful to allow Sova to be innovative and fresh, with a free hand to deliver its business, but with the advantage of access to the 190 projects that CRI runs. We wanted Sova to be a thriving organisation with its own identity."

The model has enabled Sova to start developing its own business and grow as a charity again. "It is self-generating growth," says Biddle. "Bidding for contracts and winning them has put it back on a sustainable path. Sova has also adopted some of our business-focused practices and is now in a much stronger financial state."

It is not just Sova that has benefitted; Biddle calls it a win-win situation, with CRI gaining from the small charity's strong volunteering heritage and acknowledging that its own bureaucracy was stifling innovation, Biddle says: "Sova is nimble and can go places that a bigger charity does not go because of the way the systems are set up. For example, we might not bid for small contracts, even if they could lead to something bigger, but Sova has a different approach. We have re-examined our processes and the bureaucracy that inevitably creeps into a big organisation."

During the merger process, a senior manager had responsibility for sharing information regularly with staff, who were reassured that the delivery of services would be protected and there would be no front-line redundancies. Job losses were at middle-management level. Biddle says it is important to communicate with staff and not make false promises. "Be sensitive to individuals," he says.

"Remember that some will have a life commitment to the charity."

A year on from the merger, internal feedback has been positive. "Staff are pleased that they now have the stability to move ahead," he says. "We were not the big, bad charity that took over. The fact is that Sova would not have survived; its business operations were shrinking. We were able to underpin that with the CRI balance sheet."

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