Richard Litchfield: Charities can forge their own future by partnering with the housing sector

Merging with another, similar charity can compound an organisation's problems; whereas housing associations can offer access to facilities, new income opportunities and finance, writes our columnist

Service users don't care what badge is on the tin, as long as the service works for them, writes Richard Litchfield
Service users don't care what badge is on the tin, as long as the service works for them, writes Richard Litchfield

Dan Corry, chief executive of NPC, spoke recently at an RSA lecture about the need for a shake-up in the sector and how "creative destruction" from outside might improve the performance of not-for-profits.

My preference, however, is to see the sector shape its own future. Some ambitious charities are doing just this by joining forces to establish groups that have the financial wherewithal to deliver larger contracts.

But scale is not everyone's cup of tea. Some argue that diversity and vibrancy could be lost. But whether we like it or not, scale and efficiency are important considerations for charities when facing commissioners who seek to address multiple needs and at lower unit costs.

Many housing associations could be excellent partners in this regard and are seeking to become more active in the wider social sector. But there are barriers to joint working. Frequently, charities talk fearfully about partnerships or mergers with housing associations. Some have had bad experiences; others fear being swallowed up.

But in fact a growing number of charities and social enterprises are flourishing in tandem with housing associations - for example, Safenet, a domestic violence agency that has joined up with Calico Housing and Threshold Housing. In such cases, the charity has retained its identity and received funding and in-kind support.

Too often we find charity boards seeking to merge with similarly sized organisations or take over smaller ones because they see this as a way to retain control and keep their own identities intact. But seeking organisations that are the same as yours might in fact compound the problem you are trying to solve. Great partnerships are invariably built on combining different strengths.

Housing associations can offer invaluable support, such as facilities, new income opportunities and access to finance. If the price for this is some loss of control, then this might well be worth paying.

Of course, any discussions need to be carefully considered and assurances should be sought along the way. Organisations will want evidence that values are aligned and the mission of the charity will be enhanced and not diluted inside a group structure.

Given the diversity in the social housing sector - from community organisations to large corporations - discussions don't need to be considered as a last resort. Many housing associations have set up group structures and welcome approaches from charities to either partner or join their ranks.

Surely the most pertinent question is whether it is in the best interests of the charity's beneficiaries. Service users don't care what badge is on the tin as long as the service works for them. So let's encourage broader conversations and see if the sector can be responsible for its own creative change.

Richard Litchfield is chief executive of Eastside Primetimers

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