Opinion: Should charities have their own MOTs?

Nick Cater

It is always a salutary lesson to be proved utterly wrong. I once confidently predicted - in the seven-language, globally distributed World Disasters Report from the Red Cross, so no one would notice - that the international aid sector was overdue for an inevitable consolidation.

Since then, the number of aid agencies has climbed inexorably, with hardly a merger in sight.

So it was with a sense of deja vu that I noticed the always-interesting American consultant to charities Michael Gilbert predict: "The non-profit sector is about to change, and no one will escape the transition. A convergence of technologies and practices foretells a radical restructuring of the non-profit sector. The pressures to collaborate are growing."

Gilbert suggests: "Weblogs, social bookmarking, email, messaging and all the permutations of network-centric communication are dissolving the traditional boundaries of the organisation, opening them to collaboration and communication of all scales and types." He then neatly dubs his next seminar, about how to avoid the risks of impermeable corporate structures for charities, as "The Permeable Non-Profit".

Taking account of the maxim that an American sneeze sets off a British cold, one might wonder how long it will be before UK charities take advantage of the new, electronically enhanced osmosis to collaborate far more closely with each other, and even do the decent thing and get merged.

But with the continuing growth in charity numbers and the intense competition for funding, it seems that co-operation, collaboration and merger come low on most trustee boards' agendas. Perhaps a new tool is needed to nudge or even force the essential transformation.

What about a regular health check for charities, like the annual MOT test for the nation's cars? This could assess such factors as sustainability of funding, adherence to objectives, viability of operations and risk of duplication. It could even ask for evidence that beneficiaries are satisfied with the charity's work.

In enforcing rising standards, the charity health check could have two main targets: first, directing charities in the same patch to find better ways to collaborate, cut costs and deliver more for their donors from scarce resources; and second, arranging a swift demise for charities that, for whatever reasons, have not achieved their early promise.

Just wait for the ads in Third Sector: "Charity for sale, failed MOT, breaking for scrap."

Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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