Opinion: Join the dots to find a two-headed beast

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

I have found a new use for Third Sector magazine. No, in my decline into old codgerdom I have not bought a budgie that needs an absorbent cage lining. Instead, my reading pleasure is enhanced by each week's informal join-the-dots competition.

Let's link various pieces in a single issue, 24 May, such as the news that aid agencies hope to collaborate as a disaster coalition. It emerges that the Red Cross, ActionAid, Save the Children, Help the Aged, Care and Oxfam are not solo superstars but have complementary strengths and weaknesses, their duplication highlighted by the tsunami.

From dot one, head for ActionAid's telling article about how strong branding and competition can appear tasteless or even counterproductive when it comes to working with local partners in the developing world.

The next dot takes us to a piece on partnership in the UK, in which the NCVO's Collaborative Working Unit reminds us: "Effective working between voluntary groups will nearly always result in better outcomes for beneficiaries."

Thus far the picture is clear: co-operation, collaboration, coalitions and partnerships are great ideas that will deliver far more for beneficiaries. Yes, less is more.

But at the final dot, WorldWide Volunteering's Peter Sharp takes a sharply contrary view, urging diversity as he objects to my proposal for the Charity Commission to require mergers in a bid to cut the sector's duplication, confusion and waste.

He compares the excess of charities to having a choice of restaurants. If only it were that easy, with charities enjoying a single key transaction, offering customer satisfaction in exchange for money and the bottom line's black or red deciding if they thrive or die.

A better analogy would be soup kitchens. As those helping London's homeless discovered in recent years, 100 or more groups offering soup and sandwiches was too much choice, especially when many lacked the services - advice, healthcare - that were the real reason soup kitchens existed.

Given that their main customers - funders and beneficiaries - have entirely different expectations, motives and demands, charities have the near-impossible task of keeping both groups happy at once.

Fewer charities, less choice and more co-operation might allow beneficiaries to be the undisputed priority. As it is, joining the dots reveals a two-headed creature at risk of tripping over its own feet.

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