Joe Saxton: Too many charities? No - in fact, we need more

Businesses are encouraged to multiply, says our columnist: so why do we take the opposite line with charities?

Joe Saxton
Joe Saxton

For a thriving community and voluntary sector, we need lots of charities and community groups. We need more social enterprises and community interest companies, not fewer. Yet many people say there are too many charities; existing charities, they say, should merge and new ones be forced to undergo some kind of test to ensure they are really needed.

But we take exactly the opposite position with business. Every commentator and politician would say small businesses are a key part of economic vitality. Everybody welcomes initiatives such as "silicon roundabout" near Old Street in London, where tech start-ups are nurtured. Few say there are too many supermarkets, mobile phone operators or utilities suppliers: we welcome the competition and the choice.

Yet charities are seen differently. People express horror that there are 800 charities tackling cancer. Only 800 tackling the largest cause of premature death in the UK? There is much horrified media comment on how many new charities are started each year. Why is competition and diversity good for business, but bad for charities?

Those who don't like having a vibrant and growing range of charities make a number of errors in logic. The first is that more charities equals more overheads equals more waste. Yet most charities, especially new ones, have no staff, are volunteer-run and have tiny overheads. I am chair of PTA-UK, the membership body for parent-teacher associations. Across the UK there are probably many more than 14,000 school PTAs that are charities. The overheads are minimal and the amount raised is an estimated £110m each year.

Low overheads are also a feature of any charity that aims to support its local community or village, and the idea that a charity that supports Village A could equally support Village B as well makes no sense. Governance would be more cumbersome and the benefits non-existent.

The second error in logic is thinking that having multiple charities is a failure of regulation, when in fact it's a failure of branding and strategy. I suspect there are few people who could tell you the difference between the services provided by the NSPCC, Barnardo's, Action for Children and the Children's Society. This doesn't mean they should all be merged into one big charity; it means they need to get better at their branding and differentiation so that each appeals to different audiences and different supporter motivations.

Witness how the start-up Help for Heroes energised public fundraising. The creation of Movember has revolutionised fundraising for prostate cancer. Indeed, the growth of cancer-specific charities has been a feature of support for cancer in recent years.

Many celebrities have started their own foundations and, in the cases of, say, Lady Gaga and Elton John, have used their own money and contacts to fundraise. Is anybody seriously suggesting they have one charity for all celebrities? And those worried about too many charities should have a word with Prince Charles, whose first reaction to anything is to start a new charity.

A flourishing voluntary and community sector depends on a dynamic and energetic set of organisations within it. To have this, we need a breadth of new start-ups to drive innovation and satisfy all of the different and growing needs in society.

Joe Saxton is the founder and driver of ideas at the research consultancy nfpSynergy

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