News analysis: Merger of charities 'not a takeover'

NSPCC and ChildLine say their merger is not just the result of money troubles, writes Indira Das-Gupta.

After months of well-documented financial problems, ChildLine is to become part of the NSPCC. Both charities have been very careful to describe the move as a "joining together", but it could easily be construed as an NSPCC takeover.

Mary Marsh, chief executive of NSPCC, says: "It could be described that way, but that's not the way we see it. There are two strong charity brands here, and that's how we intend to keep it. The voluntary sector seems to have found it difficult to do it that way, but it's common in the private sector.

"In the past, charity mergers have consisted of two charities coming together and taking on a single new brand. Nobody else has done it this way before, but that doesn't mean it can't be done."

Although the initiative is the talk of the sector, it comes as no great surprise. "People have asked for years why we don't work together," admits Marsh, adding that ChildLine's mission fits neatly with the NSPCC's development of There 4 Me, its separate online service for vulnerable children.

Financial lifeline

The assumption that many will make is that ChildLine initiated the move because it desperately needed a financial lifeline. But Carole Easton, chief executive of ChildLine, insists this is not so. She says: "Yes, we approached the NSPCC because we wanted to ensure our future in an increasingly difficult environment for small-to-medium charities. There's a huge demand for our services and we felt that was best met within the context of a large charity. It will enable us to answer calls more quickly and to use the information we gather from calls to influence policy.

"However, the reason for the merger is not just the immediate financial future of ChildLine. We share strategic aims, our whole raison d'etre is very similar and we have always worked together on joint projects."

But if it was not all about money, why join forces now and not before?

"When you are investing in a new service, it makes sense for a separate charity to do it if you want to develop a strong identity," says Easton.

"But now that it's so well established, the incentive is to make it as reliable as possible and to enable it to avoid the uncertainties of financial cycles."

It is not immediately obvious how a charity such as ChildLine, which has always enjoyed a high profile and strong brand recognition, could have fallen upon such hard times in the first place.

"We have always focused on investing as much as possible in our service," says Easton. "This has meant we haven't been able to set aside reserves that would help cushion us in more difficult times. This financial year in particular, there have been extra demands on people's generosity because of international disasters."

Because this is not a merger in the traditional sense, both organisations predict there will be few immediate changes. Marsh says: "We want it to be a seamless transfer so that, as far as users are concerned, it's the same service. There's no need to alter things radically."

Although this seems to make sense, it's an approach that could inadvertently create the feeling there has been a takeover, warns Richard Taylor, executive co-director of fundraising and marketing for Cancer Research UK. Taylor, an employee of the Imperial Cancer Research Fund before its merger with the Cancer Research Campaign, says: "Both organisations saw it as an opportunity to revisit our vision. We had a clear new identity and there was also a comprehensive review. It's important not to just evolve, otherwise one way of working can become dominant - that can be dangerous because people will feel they are not respected."

Another important area for consideration is communication, according to Myles Bremner, director of planning and performance at Clic Sargent, which was formed following the merger of Clic and Sargent Cancer Care for Children in April. He says: "It's important always to have a single vision that is to the benefit of the users and to communicate to the stakeholders why the move is taking place."

The reaction within the sector, which boasts about 22,500 registered children's charities, has been overwhelmingly positive. "Working in collaboration instead of isolation helps reduce overheads and, in that sense, can only be a good thing," says Julie Bentley, chief executive of the Suzy Lamplugh Trust, which took over Milly's Fund earlier this year.

Whether it will inspire other charities to come together remains to be seen, but, according to a spokesman for the Charity Commission, which facilitated the move, "it's not about setting an example - it's about doing what's best for the beneficiaries".

See Editorial, page 22.

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