Will Jones: Collaborations can be better than mergers

Duplication is inefficient and not to be created or supported, but choice between truly different organisations is vital for supporters and beneficiaries

Will Jones

In times of economic uncertainty, the security of scale is to be lauded. Earlier this month, Sarah Lindsell, chief executive of the Brain Tumour Charity, told the think tank NPC’s annual conference that brain tumour charities should "go big or go home" and merge rather than collaborate if they wanted to achieve real change.

It might pay for some to "go big or go home" to achieve ambitious long-term goals, but this strategy is not without headwinds and risk to beneficiaries with complex needs in the short term. There are many different charities in the neurological space. This is a complicated and very emotive subject, and the waters are muddy. However, in that mud there is gold.

It is through healthy independence that we have a neurological charity sector that treasures a diverse yet relevant portfolio of aims, perspectives and skills, as well as a precious 360-degree view of what our beneficiaries need. We are here for people with incredibly complex needs today, and although the single-minded pursuit of "a cure" is admirable, it is at the moment both misguided and misleading.

With such complexity, careful curation of our ecosystem is key. This difficult, delicate task is the duty of our trustees and leaders, and if it is done well we will continue to drive relevant, informed change that meets the needs of our beneficiaries. And let us not forget our regulator: Baroness Stowell, chair of the Charity Commission, has raised fresh caution that charities must "operate less like businesses", "uphold traditional values" and "avoid single-minded pursuit of organisational growth".

Today there are many ways that our charities collaborate: informal arrangements to deliver small projects; formal contractual arrangements to solve bigger problems; and the most complex end of the spectrum, where charities formally merge.

We know that central to the success of collaboration is that at any point on this spectrum should be the objectives, principles and values of the organisations involved, and the needs of the people that benefit from their services. Where values, geography and aims align, merging makes absolute sense.

Where there is lack of synergy or uncertainty about values and ways of working, the project approach works. It enables organisations to work together, to get to know each other and to bring agile, timely, laser focus to pressing issues for beneficiaries without having to worry about the process, upheaval, risk and point-of-no-return that accompany formal mergers. 

Duplication is inefficient and is not to be created or supported, but choice between truly different organisations is vital for supporters and beneficiaries. It is a fine line between duplication and competition, but there is an important distinction that is understood when you look closely at the aims and activities of the charities in our space. Here, competition drives innovation, improves quality of service and shakes off complacency. It means we have to truly understand our beneficiaries and supporters and that our organisations can all learn from each other as we work towards improving the world for people with neurological conditions. We must also consider that a flat world, with one voice and without choice, is mediocre at its best and dangerous at worst. Where one voice dominates, only one voice is heard.

No board or charity leadership team should ever rule out a carefully considered strategic merger. But we are also proud that in the neurological charity landscape there is a history of meaningful and effective collaboration between organisations that have different objectives and values. The finest example of collaboration yet is the Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Mission. The joint strategy board for the mission includes chief executives from the major UK brain tumour charities. This is a position of privilege for those of us who have been working tirelessly to improve prospects for people with brain tumours, and we owe it to Tessa and our supporters to ensure that, through effective collaboration, this incredible legacy is effective for people living with brain tumours today and in the future. 

Will Jones is chief executive of Brainstrust

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