An interesting piece from David Walker in Guardian Society on the need or otherwise for more charity mergers. For Walker the key questions are:
So why have there not been more charity mergers? Shouldn’t merger and concentration be options, especially during financial stringency? Of course. But the question is whether trustees, left to their own devices, will seek opportunities and work, as it often turns out, towards their own demise.
These are all good questions but what’s missing is the question of who benefits from large national charities merging with each other. Walker reports that:
Eight years ago, when the proposed merger of Shelter and Crisis fell apart, the then head of the government’s rough sleepers unit, Louise Casey, regretted “a lost opportunity to help homeless people more effectively”.
Having heard Ms Casey speak on a number of occasions, I certainly don’t doubt her noble intentions as an individual but it doesn’t take a genius to see why the idea of a single massive national homelessness charity, carrying out most of the largescale activity in a sector, would seem like a great idea to a leading civil servant.
This kind of ‘consolidation of the market’ leaves the people in power with one organisation to deal with. In the case of homelessness, this merger would’ve left one massive charity balancing the demands of contracting with government, working with government to deliver shared goals and advocating for the needs of homeless people. It’s easy to see why at least one of the result – only one charity in a given sector having the muscle to question and challenge government – is wonderful news (at least in the short-term) for the government, it’s harder to see how it’s good news for the vulnerable people that those organisations work with.
This is not a problem with all mergers. Clearly the situation is very different for charities, such as the successfully-merged Cancer Research UK, whose work is based around getting money (mostly from private donors) to work towards a specific goal – particularly if, as with attempting find effective treatments for cancers, that goal is not a contentious one. However, when an organisation is involved in face-to-face to service delivery mergers accentuate two pre-existing problems for larger service providing charities:
- the problem of whether an efficient, consolidated structure is more or less likely to deliver services that are responsive to a wide range of specific individual needs
- the problem of the trade-off between delivering services for money and campaigning on behalf of the people you deliver services to
I’m not in the ‘big charities bad, small charities good’ camp. That’s clearly an overly simplistic position. Large charity that have been able to grow and scale-up because they provide good services to lots of people in lots of places are fundamentally a good thing. But one of the significant benefits of services being provided by voluntary sector providers rather than the government is diversity of provision this promotes, based on the different skills and organisational experiences of those providers.
In the field of mental health, different national charities specialise in serving and advocating for a range including (amongst others):
- long-term in-patients
- people who managed a mental health condition while living a ‘normal’ life
- young people with mental health difficulties
It definitely is important that charities working in a similar field find ways to work together – both on campaigns and in delivering specific services but, while many in the voluntary sector would object to the description, it’s this competition in the market that enables different voices to be heard and different groups of people to get the services and support that they need.