A complaint about charities I hear very often on my travels is that there are just too many of us. For every "issue", there are anything from half a dozen to half a ton of charitable organisations, all working hard to support a particular group of beneficiaries, and all intent on attracting the same constituency of donors. In the free-market philosophy of capitalism, choice might be the ultimate good and the best driver of progress, but in the third sector it also contributes to eroding trust in charities. We need to be different, and to be seen to be different.
This was a subject touched on recently by Polly Neate, chief executive of Shelter, in a thoughtful and challenging speech at a New Philanthropy Capital conference. Too many bigger charities, she said, were too focused in their work on shoring up their own position against smaller rivals, at the expense of making gains for their beneficiaries. She urged the big boys and girls of our world to spend a little less time on making themselves indispensable and a little more on promoting the sort of united front across the sector, between the mighty and the minnows, that will go some way towards restoring us all to the trusted position in the public's eyes that is essential to our very future.
I am long enough in the tooth to know how easy it is for a charity to slip into the mentality of being forever on the lookout for opportunities to steal a march on rivals in the same field, and for real or imagined slights from the same rivals. And I also know, through painful experience, just how hard it can be to bring together a group of charities, all with very similar aims, in pursuit of closer collaborative working.
My last attempt at this failed because the long-time "brand" leader felt that the charity I was involved in was nothing better than a parvenu upstart in "their" field and had ideas above its proper station. However promising the potential of a partnership, however much the beneficiaries would have welcomed such cooperation and however much it would have saved on admin costs and allowed us to channel more in a more effective way to the end-users, the whole scheme collapsed in a heap of egos. It was not a pretty sight.
What encourages me most about Neate's intervention is that she is a chief executive and not a chair or trustee. By and large, it tends to be the board that talks most often and most openly about charities working in partnership, up to and including merger, and the executives who find reasons why it cannot happen.
Please don't think me cynical, but one reason for this appears plain. Collaborative working often leads to job cuts, and rare is the individual who is going to push an agenda that might ultimately result in their being made redundant.
Equally striking was the language she used: the language of power. Big charities, she charged, were using their "brands" as "the enemy of partnership and the enemy of sharing power". This is not the sort of touchy-feely, different-way-of-doing-things talk that one tends to hear in the sector - at least, not in public. In private, things are very different. She was lifting a veil.
So let's welcome such frank talk from the chief executive of one of the big brands. As trustees, let's attach a copy of her speech to the next agenda and invite comments around the table on what she has to say. And let's do more than just talk a good talk. Let's think if there are ways that our organisations - big or small - can work together with others - big or small - to make life better for those we are trying to help. If the public sees that happening, its faith in us will be renewed.
Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years