Should charities collaborate or merge to maximise their potential?

By Fatima Asif 5 November 2018

Charities can do more by working with others than they can if they go it alone. Most people in the sector would agree with this statement, but it hides a range of options and disagreement about how exactly charities should go about ‘working together’.

At last month’s NPC Ignites conference, a panel of experts from charities and funders discussed whether working together meant formal and informal collaboration or if mergers were the best way to maximise resources for causes.

‘A lot more collaboration and a little less of merging’

Duncan Shrubsole, Director of Policy, Partnerships & Communications at Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales, advocates more collaboration between charities, but thinks that they don’t often need to go as far as merging.

Duncan emphasised the importance of focussing on beneficiaries. He agreed that some charities and causes, such as medical research, do need economies of scale so should think about merger. But there are things smaller charities can do, with support from others, that larger merged charities cannot.

He talked about small, local, charities tackling place-based issues. For example, helping victims of domestic abuse from the South Asian community in a former mill town where locality matters. This could not be done by a generic ‘one-size-fits all’ national charity, which is why he is reluctant about mergers scaling certain charities up.

For Duncan, there are many different types of approaches when it comes to partnering with organisations formally and informally. And these don’t have to be organisations within the social sector.  He talked about many projects Lloyds Bank Foundation were involved in, or aware of, where bringing in ‘unsuspecting people into the cause can lead to a great impact’. He encouraged all delegates to look for collaboration with unlikely partners.

Supporting impactful collaboration

Stephen Hale, Chief Executive of Refugee Action, also spoke in favour of collaboration, but was concerned that culturally the charity sector is not yet ready for it.

Stephen told the delegates about his own experience in arranging an informal dinner with his peers from different organisations in the sector, just to chat and share their struggles.  Initially the invitation was treated with suspicion and declined as it wasn’t the ‘norm’. It took several months and reassurances from Stephen for people to get people around the table.

He highlighted that many funders will talk positively of collaboration, or even include it as a criterion for funding. But they need to go further. If funders become flexible to accept joint bids, charities that share a common goal are more likely to come together and can benefit from sharing resources, and experience and expertise while avoiding competition.

Stephen was not in favour of collaboration for collaboration’s sake. To make collaborations impactful they need leadership buy-in, funding and a shared vision for the sector among organisations.

He cautioned that collaboration is a ‘really difficult thing to do successfully, and doing it unsuccessfully is worse than getting on as an individual organisation’.

‘I am done with collaboration, but not done with mergers’

With this opening line Sarah Lindsell, Chief Executive of The Brain Tumour Charity, made her views clear. Describing how she reached this point, Sarah explained that she previously spent a lot of time negotiating collaborations with other charities but found that most have different needs to her own.

Her experience is that most of the smaller brain tumour charities are set up in remembrance of loved ones and come out of an individual’s grief, loss and need to remember. Trustees’ (sometimes hidden) objectives might not primarily be to collaborate with another charity to find a cure.

Conversely, the Brain Tumour Charity is entirely ‘focussed on finding a cure and hitting goals’. So, it’s a real struggle to start a conversation, let alone collaborate, when the goals differ.

Sarah firmly believes in mergers. The Brain Tumour Charity itself is a result of a successful merger and within the organisation have other smaller groups that fund their own research. She stated that she would stand down today if the other large charities who share the same purpose wanted to merge and take the sector forward.

This debate was part of our annual conference, NPC Ignites. NPC’s work on how collaboration and merger can help charities achieve their mission is available, free, here


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