Mergers have their place, but I’m frustrated by the small charity merger mania that usually emanates from those in national positions. It’s here again after the think tank NPC recently published a report. The report is good, well-balanced and shows the benefits of mergers. But it has allowed others to jump on the merger bandwagon, somehow suggesting we should seek out merged charities like good pubs.
I recently visited Threshold DAS, a domestic abuse charity in Llanelli, Wales, which dispels all the myths about small charities often churned out by advocates for mergers. It shows that, sometimes, independence is key.
Llanelli is five hours from London, at the end of a slow, rickety train journey from Cardiff. It’s anything but prosperous: shabby streets, small shops just about surviving and high unemployment. Fish ’n’ chips for a fiver in the empty fish bar. It’s the rugby team, the Scarlets, that sets it apart from similar towns.
Threshold DAS is a beacon of hope and energy dealing with domestic abuse, one of the toughest issues we fund. Its name comes from the concept of "no threshold" being acceptable. As we chat over tea and Welsh cakes in front of a wall full of news cuttings – including the headline "8-year-old rings 999 to tell the emergency services ‘Daddy is headbutting Mummy’" – Vicky Pedicini, the chief executive, tells me about her work. She started out as a volunteer after a social work attachment instilled a desire to be hands-on. Twenty-one years later she’s running DAS, overseeing 29 staff and 30 volunteers, as the charity has transformed structurally and in every aspect of service delivery.
No longer solely a refuge, it now supports male survivors and perpetrators as well as working intensively with women. Pedicini explained that it changed tack because "women wanted their men to change" and were "disengaging because we couldn’t offer anything that tried to keep them together". She stressed that, although abuse can never be excused, its work is nuanced because "every man we have worked with was also abused, or witnessed abuse, as a child". Often its work with perpetrators leads to couples splitting up because women feel safe to leave. DAS offers mediation services to enable "better exits" and minimise the damage to children.
Its counselling supports women with no awareness of what a "normal" relationship looks like.
In relative terms our funding could seem insignificant – just 3 per cent of its total spend – but it’s gold dust because it goes towards core costs while other funders will fund only "innovation" and contracts don’t realistically cover overheads. It isn’t right that organisations such as DAS are left jumping through hoops to survive and avoid merging. It’s delusional, disconnected madness.
The next time someone tells me small local charities lack innovation, are inefficient and need to be merged, I’ll offer to take them with me on the slow train to Llanelli. The proof of their evolution as service providers is there for all to see. I’d challenge anyone to take me to any large organisation that has gone through as much change and growth in services and yet retained intimately connected humanity at the top.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation