‘There are too many charities’; ‘We need to see more mergers”’: two statements, that seem to rear their head all too frequently, either from ministers, regulators, the media and key people in the sector themselves.

But these statements miss the point of why charities exist: for the cause, to address the need and support people. At Lloyds Bank Foundation we are passionate about a strong, healthy, vibrant, creative, voluntary sector because we believe it is key to a thriving society and economy, particularly to help those who would otherwise get left behind.

Trustees should of course ask themselves regularly, can we achieve more, who else needs support, are there others doing it better or even could we do better by combining with others? Greater collaboration should always be actively pursued but mergers shouldn’t be the starting point.

Much of the clamour for merger comes from an idea that surely bigger is better, with economies of scale just waiting to be seized. There are examples where this makes sense. Take cancer: past mergers to form Cancer Research UK and the Brain Tumour Charity or more recent mergers to create single leading charities for breast or bowel cancer that can fund research, lobby for change and provide national helplines are unalloyed good things. My own mother was killed by a brain tumour and I want the biggest, boldest, charitable sector tooled up to fight it. Effort focused on running similar separate organisations can fail to maximise public support and fundraising and reduces the impact that can be had on cancerous cells.

But just as its right for cancer charities, it isn’t right for others.  Fundamentally this needs to be about understanding the issue you are trying to address. If you want to help victims of domestic abuse from the South Asian community in a former mill town in Lancashire then the best response is an established small, local specialist charity, that has a connection to the community and a local presence, so someone will seek help in the first place and then receive the appropriate personalised response they need. This can’t be provided from a generic phone or support hub operated remotely by a one-size-fits all national charity.

At Lloyds Bank Foundation we support and partner with 700 such small and local charities working in communities right across England and Wales to tackle complex social issues like homelessness, domestic abuse and mental ill-health—issues that need a personalised, local response. These charities are embedded in communities and reach those others can’t, work in ways others don’t, and stay engaged when others won’t.

We know this from 30+ years of experience. But don’t just take our word for it.  This year we published new independent research by a consortium of leading academics who established that size does matter. Small and local charities are distinctive in who they work with, how they work with them and the role they play in local communities—and that they have real, tangible social and economic value in doing so.

Small charities already bring services together without mergers—the evidence shows they’re typically the glue that holds communities and a range of too-often disjointed other services, organisations and activities together. They are arch-collaborators day-in-day-out, building connections, bridging divides and packaging support around individuals and communities. This is particularly important when cuts and commissioning are pushing in the opposite direction. Such charities have flat hierarchies and are governed by serving those they work with and the wider communities in which they sit, not the demands of the contract, or the desire for growing ‘market share’.

So let’s focus less on mergers and much more about how we encourage and support genuine collaboration. There are some fantastic examples in our sector, particularly in the campaigning space where charities increasingly recognise we are stronger together and fail separately. And at the service level, with examples such as Exeter Co-Lab or Hackney CVS, West-London Zone, and Seren Mor which brings together specialist domestic and sexual abuse providers in South Wales.

We ourselves are part of some really interesting collaborations, including a partnership bringing together national and local charities, Police and Crime Commissioners, central and local government and other funders in England and Wales, to develop and test a new approach to tackling high-harm perpetrators of domestic abuse. We could have set up a single organisation but through actively collaborating at every level we have achieved and learnt so much more.

Against a rising tide of need we need many more collaborations, co-operation, coalitions and consortiums. And we need to understand, support, develop and invest in the tools that allow that to happen—time, trust, values. Throughout history those with power have sought to divide to assist them in ruling or preserving the status quo. It therefore calls on our sector, the sector dedicated to changing things, to be collaborating in ever deeper ways, focusing not on who we can take-over, but on who we can take with us and work alongside, if we want to have greater impact.

Duncan is speaking at this weeks NPC Ignites at session asking if collaboration is improving or wasting the sectors resources.

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