OPINION: Hot Issue - Should charities in the same field have one umbrella body?

The heritage sector is to have its own umbrella body in a bid to improve charities' lobbying influence and to secure better funding. Heritage Link will pool the weight of around 200 voluntary organisations, including the National Trust and the Civic Trust, as well as public bodies such as English Heritage.


There are very few areas of charitable activity in which only a single organisation operates. The overwhelming picture is of a plethora of players jostling for public attention and support. The arguments, on the one hand, for the strength of diversity and on the other, for rationalisation, are well rehearsed.

An umbrella or co-ordinating body can act as a valuable conduit for communication between individual charities, "adding value" to the work of constituent members by running wider campaigns, brokering co-operative efforts and helping to present a united face to, for example, the Government.

One important caveat though is that umbrella bodies should act with, and on behalf of, their constituent organisational members. They should not adopt a life independent of those members. That road leads to further competition, tension and fragmentation.


Charities should work together where there is a common cause. As the leading learning disability charity in the UK, we often work in coalition with other voluntary organisations and disability charities.

Our work chairing the Coalition on Charging meant that we had a more credible voice when lobbying at a national level. We had a vast amount of expertise from different organisations and we could offer more support to our client groups because we had more resources. The key to the success of any consortium is to have a clear focus, agreed objectives and an agreed work plan once the coalition is established.

The consortium needs to stick to its work plan and should be accountable to its members. At the end of a project it needs to have a frank evaluation asking members of the consortium about successes and failures.

Smaller consortiums often work better than larger ones because there can be delays in reaching a consensus which means you can lose the momentum of a campaign.


In principle I believe umbrella bodies can pull organisations together to create a greater force for change and improvement. But it is not always so simple. For RNIB, with its huge and diverse range of services and expertise, a "specialist" umbrella body would have to be expert in services ranging from special educational needs through to the design of mobile phones.

In other words, it could not be a "specialist" organisation.

Instead, for a large charity like RNIB, it is much more appropriate to be involved in a range of coalitions or specialist umbrella bodies for specific areas. For example, RNIB plays an important role in the Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) Alliance UK, which raises awareness of AMD and campaigns for access to treatment and rehabilitation for people with the condition.

The art of working together must be based upon common expertise and goals.

Where that is true then umbrella bodies can do the job well. Without that common denominator it is coalition and partnership work that better serves us all.


I don't think that this would be appropriate in our sector because most children's charities are not dealing with a single issue, either in terms of campaigning or of service provision. The fact that so many varied issues impact on children's lives, and therefore have to be addressed by the sector, means that it would be unrealistic to expect one specialist umbrella group to be able to cover them all.

Children's charities currently benefit greatly from taking part in discussions and initiatives run by related sectors. For example, those dealing with families, homelessness and criminal justice. Any umbrella group would have to be able to accommodate individual charities' needs to establish partnerships with organisations outside of the sector.

However, I do strongly believe in the value of children's organisations working closely together to affect greater change and influence policy by showing a united front. Speaking with one voice means we are more likely to be heard.

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