February can be such a gloomy time that we are all forever on the look-out for the first shoots of spring. And the Good Merger Index, published by the management consultancy Eastside Primetimes, offers some hope of brighter days ahead. In the year to April 2017, it reports, 70 charity mergers took place involving 142 organisations with a combined income of £975m. That is, encouragingly, an increase on the 54 mergers in the previous 12 months.
Progress? Undoubtedly. The merger message has traditionally been one that is well-aired and loudly endorsed in our sector, but then nobody busy nodding their head in agreement appears to believe that the logic actually applies to them. So, while we can all sing like larks about the benefits to be achieved in terms of economies of scale, avoiding duplication and winning back the trust of ordinary people who too often and increasingly see charities as bloated and self-seeking, too few of us are exploring merger with anything approaching an open mind.
So the tide is apparently turning. Well, to mix my metaphors, one swallow doesn’t make a summer. Or an additional 16 swallows to be precise. These 70 mergers involve fewer than 0.09 per cent of charities in England and Wales, and 56 per cent of them were, in effect, takeovers – often where one of the parties was about to collapse anyway – with just 29 per cent "mergers of equals".
That takes the shine off things, doesn’t it? No matter, Eastside has some positive ideas about how to increase the momentum, including working with the Social Investment Business and a group of sector funders to create a "merger turnaround fund" to provide financial and other support that would encourage those thinking about merger but deterred by the cost.
However, such laudable initiatives are going to find it very hard going unless trustees finally start taking this issue seriously. Merger is always going to be a hard-sell with the executive at any charity. However devoted chief executives and senior management teams are to the wellbeing of the beneficiaries of their organisations, they also have mortgages to pay, families to support, careers to further. And they know that one of the prime benefits of merger, economies of scale, means that some of them will lose their jobs. So why would they push that agenda too vigorously, especially in these uncertain times for our economy, our nation and the world?
No, it has to be the trustees who take in the bigger picture, and push and push and push. What have we to lose? If we are so keen to cling on to our chair round the trustee table, then we shouldn’t be there in the first place. And if we really want to do the very best by the people our charity has been set up to support and empower, then we should constantly be taking a long, hard look at how that might be better achieved by closer collaborative working with other organisations in precisely the same field.
It has to be on the agenda at least once a year. Yes, it will be uncomfortable sometimes, and it will often meet with passive resistance from the executive. And, yes, let's be honest, there is a part of all of us that believes "our" charity is so brilliant that it has to rise to the top. Even those who loudly proclaim themselves above all that silly, macho competitive business have a sliver of it in there somewhere. I’m happy to confess to it and recognise that, in the past, it has got in the way of my own efforts to push the merger option when its benefits seemed blindingly obvious.
The antidote is to remember, when that competitive thought crosses your mind, that it isn’t "our" charity at all. No individual, group of staff or trustees, long-established brand name or perfectly calibrated programme should ever be bigger than the cause itself. And if merger is the best way to further that cause, then let's finally get on with it. Next year, instead of 70 mergers, lets have 700. That would still account for less than 1 per cent of charities in this country. Not revolution, but necessary evolution.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years