Kevin Curley: Mergers can eliminate good charities for ever

For example, there's nothing to cheer about in the combination of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Volunteering England, says our columnist

Kevin Curley
Kevin Curley

I was pleased to be at Voice4Change's parliamentary event this month. It was a chance to say goodbye to Vandna Gohil, who has led it so well for the past five years. So with state funds running out, will Voice4Change face merger, like so many other charities? Its chair, Elizabeth Balgobin, is determined not to see the distinctive voice for local black communities submerged. If money cannot be found, V4C could be 'incubated' inside a larger organisation such as Runnymede until better days arrive. This is a much more creative option than merger, whereby both V4C's membership base and separate identity would be lost.

I have never accepted the idea that there are too many charity voices speaking up for our complex and competing local charities and communities. As a supporter of both the National Council for Voluntary Organisations and Volunteering England, I see nothing to cheer about in their merger. Announcing their plans in August, Ben Kernighan, deputy chief executive of the NCVO, said: "The new organisation will be a unifying voice for a large, diverse and collectively powerful sector." Well, maybe. But keeping pressure on public policy to encourage volunteering is a huge job in itself; how can it have priority, given NCVO's much wider remit?

This summer also saw Navca and Community Matters open merger talks. David Tyler, chief executive of Community Matters, claimed in July that the merger "would create a powerful voice to stand up for local organisations and groups". But it will not replace what will be lost - an independent advocate for small grass-roots groups, often neglected by local government and local infrastructure.

My first experience of volunteering was at Blackfriars Settlement in 1972. At the heart of the settlement movement was the fight against poverty and inequality. The settlements' national body, Bassac, merged with the Development Trusts Association in 2010 to form Locality. The focus now is on asset ownership and enterprise. The soul and the passion of the settlement movement has been lost for ever.

I am not anti-merger. A decade ago the Cancer Research Campaign and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund came together as Cancer Research UK. It made complete sense. The charities were competing for funds to carry out identical work. Back in 2007 I celebrated when five small district organisations merged to form Cumbria CVS. Again, it was the right thing to do - the charities had the same job but lacked the resources to do it effectively.

The rush to merger now comes directly from the decision by Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, to cut funding for national infrastructure charities. It has nothing to do with making organisations stronger. For a saving of less than £5m a year, our ability to influence government and to bring authentic local voices into policy-making is being sacrificed for a generation.

Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser and former chief executive of Navca

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