Two London charities merged because 'we share the same vision'

The two organisations for older people say their decision to merge was not caused by financial pressure, reports Liam Kay

Link Age Southwark
Link Age Southwark

For many charities, a merger is conceived in a moment of crisis rather than planned from a position of strength. The Good Merger Index 2014/15, published last November, said that financial distress appeared to be a major driver behind many mergers and only 18 per cent of mergers over the period were between equal partners.

One example of a merger said to have resulted from a clear strategy rather than financial emergency is Link Age Southwark, the product of two charities that provide support services for older people in the London borough of Southwark.

Katharine St John-Brooks, chair of the merged charity, says: "It's better to do things when you're not in extremis, when you are not in financial distress and can take the long view.

"It means you can do it in a much more considered way; you can do it at a slower pace so that you can bring everybody with you rather than having to charge through at a pace that people are uncomfortable with."

Dulwich Helpline and Southwark Churches Care started negotiations in December 2010, aiming to pool resources and expand coverage. The merger was completed in October 2012 and the charity decided to adopt its new name last October.

Dulwich Helpline, which initiated the merger, had been searching for a partner to collaborate with, aiming for a full merger if both parties agreed. The two charities felt they had strong cultural similarities and suited each other better than other age-care organisations in the area.

Adrian Greenwood, deputy chair of Link Age Southwark and former chair of Southwark Churches Council, says: "The ambition was that by joining together we could get the infrastructure in a stronger place, be comparatively leaner, stronger and fitter, and that we could therefore make a better contribution."

In the early days, there were a number of lucky breaks that eased the transition. Two of the three staff at Southwark Churches Care had temporary contracts that were not renewed, meaning further redundancies were unnecessary, and leaving Link Age Southwark with the seven permanent staff it required.

Southwark Churches Care's policy manager left voluntarily in 2011, meaning Dulwich Helpline's chief executive ran both organisations in the months before and after the merger took place.

For the first few years, the two charities had a combined trustee board including all five Southwark Churches Care and 10 Dulwich Helpline representatives. This was later reduced to 12 trustees.

The merger has left Link Age Southwark in good health, with an income of £297,000 in 2014/15, compared with outgoings of £272,000. The new charity has 413 volunteers supporting 602 older people.

Before the merger, both sides had reservations about losing their identity and the impact on services during the merger, but regular communication and thorough examination of the risks and benefits helped to ease such concerns.

St John-Brooks, who was formerly chair of Dulwich Helpline, says that observing the Charity Commission's guidance on mergers, getting outsiders to facilitate early trustee meetings and listening to the concerns of staff and trustees ensured a successful merger.

Greenwood says that charities involved in a merger need common principles. "I think it helps to be clear about what you're trying to achieve and to have a bigger vision," he says.

"Frankly, people have got to be prepared to give up things, and if you go into this thinking your way is the right way and it has to be done your way, you won't get very far."

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