David White makes the case for non-profit mergers in the U.K. - an argument that deserves to be considered by development agencies in Latin America
There are 163,000 British charities, according to the Charity Commission, and thousands more voluntary organisations are recognised as charitable but are unregistered. Should there be so many? Companies merge to make more profit, public sector bodies are reorganised to provide better services – maybe charities should do the same. It is prudent to do so now when the economy is in recession and deep cuts are being made to public expenditure.
Collaboration should always be on the agenda for charity leaders. Trustees must always ask whether a charity's objectives are best served by using resources themselves or passing them on to others who are better placed to help beneficiaries. If this question was objectively addressed by charity trustees I believe there would be many more collaborations and full mergers between charities.
There are 733 UK charities who help those with "sight loss". Some of these are large charities with turnover in excess of £50m each – and among some of these there have been high profile mergers in recent years. For example, the RNIB Group, which is an umbrella organisation for other sight loss charities. But even here other large national names maintain their independence and potentially confuse donors and complicate matters for beneficiaries.
There are some excellent examples of collaboration and full merger. Age UK is a great result from bringing together the complementary roles and perspectives of Age Concern and Help the Aged – and there are many smaller and local examples too. Largely driven by funding cuts, voluntary sector bodies around the country are benefitting from mergers, without a great cost in loss of local identity or focus. Unified voluntary sector services speak with much greater authority to larger tiers of local government.
At its Charity Centre in Buckinghamshire the Clare Foundation has more than 20 charity tenants, across a wide range of different interests. Some interesting collaborations have emerged due to working in the same building alongside one another. A specialist international charity based at the centre shared the London Marathon facilities of another tenant, that was much larger and had many more runners. Was there a conflict of interest or of fundraising? Definitely not.
There are other examples where charities in the centre are able to collaborate because they have clients in common. The Clare Foundation itself has recently merged with a local organisation that champions corporate social responsibility.
Charity collaboration and merger is not inevitable – but it is something that all charities should inevitably consider. Here are three questions to consider:
• Is there another organisation with similar or complementary objectives and/or beneficiaries that we should be talking to?
• Can we achieve economies and/or a better service by working together?
• Are we sufficiently bold (and committed to the best interests of our beneficiaries) that we are prepared to put aside our personal preferences and consider working with others?
If independent sustainability is an issue these questions will probably arise very quickly – the real trick is to get ahead of the game and think about mergers before a crisis hits.
David White is chief executive at The Clare Foundation.