RNIB chief urges regulator to make it more difficult to set up a charity

Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB, says the founding of some charities is an "understandable but often knee-jerk reaction"

Lesley-Anne Alexander
Lesley-Anne Alexander

The Charity Commission should raise the barriers of entry into the sector to stop people setting up charities as a "knee-jerk reaction", according to Lesley-Anne Alexander, chief executive of the RNIB.

Alexander was delivering a lecture yesterday at London’s Cass Business School about the 14 mergers the RNIB has gone through in recent years, including with Action for Blind People.

She said that there were 733 charities in the UK that had blindness or sight loss in their objects, creating "unnecessary competition for fundraising and government contract work; it even provides competition for blind people. One person once said to me it doesn’t feel like blind welfare, so much as blind warfare."

Alexander, who is also chair of the charity chief executives body Acevo, said: "It is a very British thing to set up a charity – it is an understandable but often knee-jerk reaction to something."

She said she supported comments made by Sam Younger, chief executive of the Charity Commission, in his final public speech in the role last month, that there were too many charities, resulting in "duplication, inefficiency and, sadly, too many charities that are not managed well enough".

Alexander said she had been of this view for a long time, and that she wished Younger had said this at the start of his tenure rather than at the end. She cited a recent Third Sector online poll in which 81 per cent of readers said they agreed that there was too much duplication, inefficiency and bad management in the sector.

"When someone has that knee-jerk reaction to set up a charity, I'd like to hear the Charity Commission to say ‘ok, but you’re going to have to spend six months first researching the other charities in the sector’," she said. "Raising barriers just that little bit would promote some fantastic work."

Alexander said that in general charities were "hugely over-regulated", but this regulation did not contribute to them fulfilling their purposes.

Since Younger’s speech, the commission has released new guidance on starting a charity, which it said in a statement would "encourage people to think carefully before setting up a charity" and consider possible alternatives.

Alexander said mergers were a good solution and she was disappointed that many people in the sector resisted mergers. "Lots of people put up excuses such as ‘we’ve had advice that we can’t merge because of our pensions scheme’," she said. "I say to that – get better advice."

She said that resistance might also be based on fallacies about incompatible internal cultures, the need to give beneficiaries choice or "founders syndrome", when the ego of a founder means they can’t countenance their creation being reformed. "We fund our strategy, not our structures," she said.

Alexander said that, compared with the private sector, it was much more difficult to make the case for a merger when the goal was a non-financial one. "There’s no such thing as a hostile takeover in our world," she said. "I sometimes genuinely wish there was."

- This story was corrected on 19 June 2014. It originally said that RNIB had merged with SeeAbility; in fact the charities have just been working closely together.

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