What do Nigeria, the Women’s Institute and Hulk Hogan have in common? Other than being the ingredients for an unforgettable dinner party, they are all examples of federations—a federal republic, a federation of charities and, naturally, the World Wrestling Federation.

Some of the highest profile charities in the UK—Mind, Citizens Advice and YMCA among them—have federated structures, where a network of local charities are overseen by a national headquarters or governing body. For some, the federal structures have evolved organically and continue to be led by the passion of local leadership. Others have taken a more planned approach, bringing local initiatives into a highly modelled national framework.

For NPC, the prevalence of federated structures prompts important questions at a sector level. We are publishing a discussion paper on the issues facing federated charities ahead of a special seminar for charity trustees next month, kindly hosted by the Clothworkers’ Company. Ultimately, we wish to ask: is a federated structure the best way of achieving social mission?

For its cheerleaders, federated structures offer the best of both worlds: the scale, profile and clout to have voice and influence on a national stage, yet rooted in the communities they serve and responsive to local need. Sceptics ask where such structures present risks, and how these can be managed. One characteristic of what my colleague Tris Lumley calls ‘the anti-social sector’ is that organisational survival takes priority over social mission. In extensive networks of independent charities, does this risk exist to the power of n?

These are questions that are both philosophical (how should we organise ourselves?) and pragmatic (does this make any difference to our effectiveness?). Federated charities face a continual creative tension between the centre and local branches, with their leaders tasked with balancing the independence of local organisations with the strategic ambitions of the movement as a whole. Not an easy ask, and many federated charities have an eyebrow-raising turnover of chief executives.

Federated charities, however, have proved resilient. There are relatively few examples of charities “defederating”. Although Victim Support moved from a federated structure to become a single integrated national charity in 2008, no charity of equivalent scale has subsequently followed suit.

Over the next month, we are gathering the experiences of federated charities. We want to understand:

  • How can federations get the most out of local knowledge?
  • What are the implications for the commissioning of public services?
  • How can a head office add most value? Where is support most needed?
  • How can central organisations influence local charities to be more effective, while encouraging innovation and respecting local decision making?
  • What are the implications for governance of a federated structure? How is representation and governance best distinguished and managed?
  • Is there a role for shared measurement initiatives to help federated charities demonstrate their impact, and assess it against non-federated equivalents?

As part of our research, we want to hear the perspectives—good and bad—of both central and local, federated and non-federated organisations. You can reach me at alex.vanvliet@thinknpc.org, or—if you are modern—find me on twitter @alex_vanvliet.

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