4. Are There Too Many Charities?
The complaint against charities that there are simply too many of them is troublesome to argue against. It’s certainly true that there are sometimes hundreds of charities often apparently serving the same cause. The risk is that funding gets diluted and it creates needless competition when resources and funding are already tight. If only charities were to pool their resources, the argument goes, this would lead to better outcomes for beneficiaries and the public.
But is it as simple as that?
There is a lot of talk, both within and outside the sector, about the need for more mergers. It would seem to make perfect sense in a funding environment that has been nothing short of challenging for at least ten years. But the number of charities merging remains small.
To give an idea, there are around 168,000 registered charities in the UK and in the year to March 2018 there were just 81 mergers, involving 154 charities. A closer look reveals that more than two thirds of the 81 mergers were actually takeovers, in which a smaller charity was absorbed into a larger one. Financial difficulties is evidently a key motivator for charities considering whether to merge.
Many charities collaborate successfully and charities do look to merger when they think the time is right. Another option, which seems to suit some causes better, is the network model. It works a bit like a franchise in the for-profit sector, with a brand operating through hundreds of small, independent set-ups across the country. Age UK and the Citizens Advice Bureau (CAB) are good examples, and the benefits are that each independent charity enjoys a good level of autonomy within their local area and will build a connection with their community in a way that is not possible for a large, centralised organisation.
There are benefits to being small as well as to being big.
Lots of charities working on the same issue will operate only in one local or regional area. They can offer a unique insight into their community, which has a positive effect on the efficiency of service delivery.
Consider for example, the difference between a local operator managing the schedules of frontline colleagues in any given town, and an operator 500 miles away. Looking at the task superficially, one might suppose that with the right tools, there should be little difference in performance. From my experience, though, the knowledge of the local operator is often enhanced by extra bits of information about the service user, the frontline worker, the location and traffic. All in all, these differences can make for a smoother operation and save costs by reducing the number of wasted appointments
Charities can be like coffee shops: they look much the same from the outside but step inside and you will feel each place’s unique character.
From the perspective of people who use charities, an organisation’s spirit can make all the difference to their experience. It may be the welcome and friendliness of the staff and volunteers. It may be its location and the ambience of the building itself. Perhaps the support offered is hands-on assistance rather than veering towards self-help. You might prefer a ‘face to face’ approach over one that embraces a more digital-based service delivery. Charities are truly as diverse as the causes they support,
Some of today’s best-known and most successful charities started out very small. If someone had told them they shouldn’t start because there were already charities working in that area, we wouldn’t have a Help for Heroes, or a Suzy Lamplugh Trust. Nobody would deny the hugely positive impact these young charities are making. Without doubt, they benefited from being start-ups, unencumbered by decades of ‘always doing it this way’, and nimble enough to adapt swiftly to an ever-changing operational environment.
About the Writer– Jenny Hopkins is founder and content curator of The Boiling Frog; she is also a voluntary sector adviser and strategy specialist for Penleaf Limited, helping charities respond to the challenges of a changing world.
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I have been lucky enough to work with – and on – some good boards in the charity sector. That may surprise you, given that trustees generally come in for a lot of flak – not least from their own CEOs and senior managers. The thing is, good boards don’t happen overnight. You achieve them with patience, care and forethought.
My sympathy to all organisations having to cope with flood damage after recent storms. I know what it feels like because I have been there. I was responsible for putting a recovery plan in operation for a charity when its offices and community centre suffered flooding just a few years ago.
Charities are no different to any other sector in that they are being challenged by the rise of digital. But their slowness to adapt means they face being left behind.