Peter Stanford: Too many charities - and that's how it's likely to stay

The staff of individual charities are rarely going to be the most passionate supporters of mergers. Unless there is support from trustees and policy-makers, consolidation is unlikely, writes our columnist

Peter Stanford says military charities are unlikely to heed the recommendations made in Lord Ashcroft's Veterans' Transition Review
Peter Stanford says military charities are unlikely to heed the recommendations made in Lord Ashcroft's Veterans' Transition Review

The last thing I would want to do is sound like a politician, chasing a headline and demanding change within that neat five-year cycle of parliamentary elections.

But I can't help feeling frustrated that our sector is doing so little to counter the widespread, oft-repeated and, frankly, soundly based criticism that there are too many charities doing the same thing. When will we finally make a sincere, sustained, structured and sector-wide attempt at consolidation?

I recall that, in the late 1980s, Diana, Princess of Wales - then at the height of public adoration - gathered the charities under her royal patronage (including the national spinal injuries charity Aspire, of which I was chair) in a City of London hall and dared to tell us, politely but firmly, to take mergers more seriously. She was not the first to say this, and certainly has not been the last.

The latest headline-grabbing initiative in this area is the Veterans' Transition Review by the Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft, which concludes that the 2,000 charities in this field overlap, compete for the same pot of money and duplicate services. That doesn't help those they are supposed to be serving. It has got to change, he insists.

Business as usual

Will they listen? Not on the evidence of my 30-odd years in this sector. There have been the same vague but supportive responses - "good idea, we will study it in detail". But experience suggests that the outcome will be business as usual.

The arguments against change are also familiar: diversity is a strength; consolidation will reduce choice for service users; people feel more inspired by a new charity, founded around a specific cause, than a long-established one.

Such arguments are as familiar as they are wrong. Diversity means 10 charities wasting donated funds on accountancy teams, receptionists, representatives in the field, chief executives, buildings, websites, annual reports and banking charges. That is not a strength - it is a waste.

Consolidation is not a fast track to just one provider, but rather an uncluttering that will still leave plenty of choice but less unnecessary doubling-up for doubling-up's sake.

I speak from experience. I spent 20 years trying to consolidate the too-many spinal injuries charities in the country into one body that better served people with spinal injuries. And I made very little progress.

Perhaps it was down to me being overly zealous, but when you are constantly asked by potential donors why there are half a dozen charities doing roughly the same thing rather than one, it fires you up.

A bit of pump-priming

So why aren't we making progress? Well, a bit of pump-priming always helps. One response from the Prime Minister to Lord Ashcroft's recommendation might be to provide a fund to assist and encourage mergers. A genuine and sustained push by the Charity Commission and the Cabinet Office to promote consolidation would be a nice accompaniment to this. At the moment, those who want to see it happen have to bear the cost of dragging reluctant potential partners to the table.

One other thing would help: trustees. The staff of individual charities are rarely going to be the most passionate supporters of mergers. They love their own charity. It's like their family, so they are reluctant to change. If I was cynical, I might add that any consolidation might cost them their jobs.

So, trustees, this one is down to us. We might have just as strong an emotional attachment to our own charity, but our legal responsibility is to make it as effective as possible in how it spends the money it raises. If that means merger or consolidation, then we have to put aside our feelings. Our remit is strategic oversight rather than day-to-day management, so we have a core responsibility to look radical alternatives in the eye and not to flinch. We must be the change-makers.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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