August 27, 2014 : Jenny Bloomfield
Charity mergers – lessons from Monty Python
Watching Monty Python’s Life of Brian the other day got me thinking. With many charities having similar aims and reasons to exist, isn’t it a bit daft, (especially with cash hard to come by) to have both the equivalent of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front? Shouldn’t charities that are similar do what we’re used to seeing businesses do, and just merge?
We might be tempted to argue that businesses and charities are different. Business turns a profit. Charity, on the other hand… Oh no, hang on.
Businesses and charities are in many ways the same. They provide something that people want or need. The provider is paid, whether by the customer, the government or the donor. Hopefully they make enough money to pay non-voluntary staff and to survive sustainably.
We all recognise that, for business, finding better ways of turning a profit makes sense. Why have five companies all providing the same thing in the same place? Often, they can’t and don’t. Instead some go under, some are swallowed up and some merge. The result is fewer overheads – fewer headquarters, fewer back-office staff and fewer chief executives.
So why don’t charities merge too?
We know we must tighten our belts as there isn’t the same money available as in previous years. We know we can’t keep scrabbling around in the same money-pots as each other. It’s not fair on workers, who aren’t provided with a decent wage, and it’s not fair on users and supporters, who don’t get the support they deserve.
Isn’t it a bit daft to have both the equivalent of the People’s Front of Judea and the Judean People’s Front?
So how about charities who are struggling considering a merger? After all, surely the aim of all charities is to progress their cause in the best way possible, and if that cause is closely aligned to another’s, why not? Just think what you could do with the extra slosh provided by cutting out that now-spare Chief Exec. And there would be fewer trustee boards meaning fewer places to fill, and ensuring that the expertise some volunteer to the sector is spread across fewer organisations.
As the author of a recent report into charity mergers in England and Wales says: “Many negative perceptions of mergers are misplaced… There were many examples where organisations, even if they were small or in distress, were able to negotiate favourable terms and so created a much more sustainable environment for staff and service users.”
A merger does not mean a takeover. The board and management come from both organisations, and a new organisation is formed. The result? Lower costs, a broader knowledge base, and an improved, sustainable organisation.
Of course, in a merger scenario, it’s not just chief executives who lose their jobs. Back-office and support staff go, and networks and communities of activists, built up so carefully over the lifetime of the charity, may be lost. This stuff isn’t easy. But an honest and open conversation about how we move forward together as a sector, how we can manage with less money while still supporting people and causes in a sustainable way, is a must.
What’s your view on charity mergers? We’re always keen to publish guest blogs, so if you’re interested please email us