Peter Stanford: Merger should be seen as a positive, not a last resort

We should tackle the default 'no to merger' position that is common in the sector, says our columnist

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The review of the Charities Act 2006 by Lord Hodgson has a tight timescale and plenty on its plate, but I'd like to enter a heartfelt plea.

As one of the many charity trustees who for many years has tried and failed to advance the cause of mergers, my plea is for Lord Hodgson to seize the opportunity to tackle what is effectively a default 'no to merger' position entrenched in our sector.

To its credit, the 2006 act did contain provisions to address and ease this situation. It marked a logical progression from the situation of the past two or three decades, when there had been inspiring talk about the need for charities to combine, but it had resulted in little action.

I recall, for example, in the early 1990s attending a 'charity day' at the Guildhall in London, organised by Diana, Princess of Wales, in which she gathered her charities together and urged them to find ways - financial and legal - of working together more closely. She saw part of her role as royal patron as being to bring that about, to personify a connection, and it was a constant theme in her dealings with the charities she supported.

One of Diana's great strengths was her common sense, which chimed with the views of the public. She couldn't understand why we needed 10 charities doing essentially the same thing, and neither do the people we keep asking to fund us.

I have just judged a prize for organisations working in the field of prison reform. There was a strong field, made up of mainly regionally based bodies, tackling particular areas of reform of offenders and support for victims.

"The ideal solution," one of my fellow judges said as we debated, "would be to merge them all into one because there is the makings of a seamless rehabilitation service here."

A halfway house, of course, is what is often labelled "closer collaborative working". Encouragingly, this is happening much more now, but to get such collaboration going you often have to counter the widespread perception that it is simply the thin end of the wedge of merger.

But why this instinctive hostility to merger? Why has so little progress been made, despite the groundswell of support? Simply, there isn't sufficient will at trustee and senior management level to make it happen. Merger is too often seen as something you do only when you are in trouble, not as a positive move to benefit the people you are supposed to be serving.

I have worked with colleagues over the past decade to persuade the spinal cord injury charities in the UK - there are five biggish ones, and a variety of smaller ones - to think and talk about merger. Figures have been prepared and tabled showing fragmentation might be costing us revenue and duplicating effort. I'm pleased to say that some progress is now being made; but it has taken a long time.

How might the Charities Act 2006 be amended to speed that up? If we look at the parallel world of business - yes, I know charities and businesses are different, but there is sufficient overlap to make the exercise worthwhile - there are mechanisms that can trigger mergers, regardless of the attitude of boards and management.

So-called hostile takeovers don't get a good press, and often deservedly. But potentially just as unattractive is the board of trustees that simply refuses to have the discussion about merger, sure in the knowledge that ultimately there is nothing that can be done to force them.

So how about, in the case of charities that are membership organisations, making it possible for the cases for and against merger to be put to the members and voted on? It's back to trusting that groundswell of grassroots opinion again.

At least, in such a poll, arguments can be tested. In many cases there are good reasons why merger won't work. And, like every trustee, I have an emotional attachment to the organisation I work with, and a protective instinct when it comes to our rivals.

But reasoned debate about the best way forward - whether to stand alone, or enter into some sort of partnership - should not be feared: it might just make something good even better.

Over to you, Lord Hodgson.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, director of the Longford Trust and former trustee of a number of charities

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