'The merger will allow us to have a far greater impact'

Deborah Alsina, chief executive of the recently merged Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer, tells Rebecca Cooney why coming together is the best way forward

Deborah Alsina
Deborah Alsina

There’s a widely held view in the charity world that a bit of competition is always a good thing and gives you something to spark off. Deborah Alsina, the chief executive of Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer, gives that notion short shrift. "I’m interested in saving lives," she says. "If we don’t have the resources to do everything we want to do, what’s the point of having two chief executives and two directors of finance?"

In January, Bowel Cancer UK and Beating Bowel Cancer formally merged after almost two decades of working hard to differentiate themselves and justify separate existences.

Bowel Cancer UK was founded in 1987 by Patrick Dolan, whose wife, Britta, had died of the disease. Its aim was to improve the range of treatment options available in the UK, focusing on research and policy campaigning. Meanwhile, Beating Bowel Cancer was formed in 1999 to support people affected by the disease and specialised in the provision of services.

The question of whether the charities should merge was raised last year by both charities "pretty much simultaneously", says Alsina. Mark Flannagan, chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, stepped down in March 2017 after six-and-a-half years in post, and new trustees on its board came to the conclusion that, together, the charities could increase their impact and reach. "Sometimes the stars need to align," she says.

Eight months

It was not a decision the two charities took lightly. In fact, it took eight months to develop the final proposal. "We wanted to make sure it really would benefit people affected by bowel cancer," says Alsina. "We wanted to be more than the sum of our parts and ensure we wouldn’t be losing money on a merger. I’ve certainly seen other mergers where the organisations slipped backwards initially.

"We have been quite clear about our ambition. We want to make a significant shift, not just in terms of income, but actually in terms of impact on the disease."

Beating Bowel Cancer had an annual income of £1.7m and 34 employees at the time of the merger, and Bowel Cancer UK had an income of £2.3m and 31 employees. The trustees took the decision that Bowel Cancer UK would absorb Beating Bowel Cancer, effectively making the merger a takeover. Alsina, who has led Bowel Cancer UK for almost 10 years, says the decision was taken for convenience, not because one side was trying to assert its dominance.

"The idea of co-creation is really important," she says. "Bowel Cancer UK was the larger of the two, but in a sense that’s utterly irrelevant because it’s about bringing together the best of both organisations and enabling staff and trustees to create the future together."

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The new organisation has pledged to increase survival rates from one in every two people over five years to three out of four people. It also wants to improve screening rates.

Its ambition is that, by 2050, no one will die from bowel cancer.

Logistics

Alsina says the charity is still working out some of the logistics of the merger. It currently has two head offices, one in central London and the other in Teddington, to the south west of the city, but it hopes to have moved to a single building by August.

Staff are in the process of being moved onto unified contracts, although both pension schemes have remained open for at least the time being.
No jobs were lost at the point of the merger, although Judith Brodie, interim chief executive of Beating Bowel Cancer, returned to consulting, leaving Alsina, who won Chief Executive of the Year at the Third Sector Awards last year, in charge.

When asked if there would be any job losses in the near future, Alsina simply says "no".

Alsina’s connection to the cause is deeply personal. Her father died from the disease in 2007, which led her to become involved with Bowel Cancer UK after previously working in the sector mainly for refugee organisations (see "Career Move", right).

As a result of her own experiences, she’s made a conscious choice to be very connected with the community of people affected by the disease, staying in touch with those who survive and the families of those who don’t. "It’s no exaggeration to say I talk to people who are dying every day," Alsina says.

‘Sacred pact’

The only way to deal with "that level of awfulness", she says, is to plough her grief and anger back into making the charity as effective possible.

"For me, the money and support that we get is like a sacred pact," she says. "It sits very heavily on my shoulders. People raise money for us at very dark times in their lives or out of loss or fear, and they’re trusting us to do something of value – and we absolutely do and will."

The charity’s supporters have been enthusiastic about the merger, she says, and one of the most enjoyable elements of bringing the two organisations together has been holding focus groups with beneficiaries and donors to discuss the future brand. But significant challenges remain. Raising funds to combat a disease that’s about "blood in your poo or a change in bowel movements" is a real challenge, which is partly why bowel cancer as a cause doesn’t attract the same level of donations as some other cancers, even though it is the UK’s second-biggest cancer killer.

Alsina’s priorities are therefore to attract more donations and make more people aware of the symptoms of the disease so they can be diagnosed earlier.

To keep herself focused, Alsina has placed a yellow Post-It note on the noticeboard above her desk with the words "MORE MONEY" written on it in block capitals. It was written by her director of fundraising during a brainstorming session. "I kept it because it sums up the greatest challenge we have," she says. "How do we grow the organisation so we can do far more to stop the disease for good?"

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