Peter Stanford: I want neatness in delivery, not necessarily in structure

Our columnist says he's not so dogmatic about mergers as he used to be

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

Our society is not good at respecting the wisdom that comes with age. To be candid, before my hair turned grey and my stomach became more smorgasbord than washboard, I was probably as impatient as any other stripling when those more experienced than me counselled slowing down, taking my time and showing a little patience.

Sadly, I'm not sure too many of those erstwhile mentors are now around for me to tell them they were right. So I'll pass on the same advice here to other trustees in the hope that it might help you avoid some of the bull-in-a-china-shop mistakes I have made.

As anyone who has read this column over the years will know, I'm very keen on closer collaborative working between charities so as to concentrate effort and thereby achieve the best outcomes for those we are supposed to be helping.

Too many charities in the same field, too much administration and duplication of functions are taking resources away from the front line.

The merger drum

With the arrogance that comes with youth and certainty, I banged away on this particular drum of merger until I deafened those I was trying to influence to everything I was saying.

There are, I have learned, many roads to the same goal, some subtler, quieter and just as effective.

Perhaps my hang-up was the word merger. I have a neat mind and neatness is, I still maintain, a good habit - good in life, good in work and good if you are going to play your part properly as a trustee as well as doing a day job, saving you from being engulfed in paperwork, Charity Commission directives and the day-to-day management issues that should be no business of trustees.

But neatness can cause you to lack creativity, focus too narrowly and therefore take your eye off the goal. Neatness made me want one simple, streamlined, merged organisation; but structure, I now see, isn't the point. It is the service you deliver that has to be neat, simple and streamlined.

I was delighted, therefore, when my old colleagues at Aspire - old as in former, of course, since they still await the onset of grey - told me of a new venture they are undertaking with two other spinal injury charities.

Collaborative working

Neurological Commissioning Support already pools the concerns relating to NHS services of the MS Society, the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the Epilepsy Society and Parkinson's UK, and has proved the point that one user voice is more effective than four.

This excellent model of collaborative working is now being extended and three spinal injuries charities (Aspire, SIA and Back Up) have joined forces to be part of it.

What I like about the scheme is the extent to which trustees from the constituent parts put their weight behind a coherent collective body to give it real energy. They have found a practical, effective way to make closer collaborative working a reality.

What is also positive about this venture is the extent to which it is top-down in terms of trustees joining forces in the joint venture, and bottom-up in its expression of the collaboration between staff at the different charities.

And in the middle of the sandwich are the chief executives of the founding charities of NCS, who act as trustees for the joint venture. Everyone involved, each with a positive role, bringing positive outcomes. How neat is that?

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

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