Shutting down: the greatest measure of success?

By John Copps 30 July 2009

Charities have a curious feature that sets them apart from other organisations: they exist to put themselves out of business.

Charities are created in response to a perceived problem or injustice, and strive to get rid of it. So, if a cure for cancer was discovered, for example, there would be thousands of organisations without a cause left to fight for.

Surprisingly, not many charities acknowledge this possibility. In NPC’s experience of analysing charities, it is a very rare occurrence to find a strategic plan that explicitly considers what might happen if the problem they exist to tackle ceased to exist.

Although ridding the world of cancer seems a distant hope, we never really know how close we are to a solution. After all, who could have predicted the dramatic decline in the number of homeless people sleeping on streets in the UK over the last ten years? And who can second-guess advances in technology?

Earlier this year, a crime prevention charity in Wales decided to shut because it claimed that the problem it sought to address had gone away. A trustee of the charity was quoted as saying the closure as excellent news. ‘Would it be a problem if we needed fewer lifeguards?’ he said. ‘Of course not: it would mean fewer people needed to be rescued. This is the way we have looked at it. It is important that charities remember they exist for the benefit of others, not themselves.’

Asking the question ‘what would happen if the problem went away?’ reminds us of why charities exist – to find solution to a problem or injustice. It shows us that without a community to serve, charity has no purpose. Given this, in a perverse way, reaching a point where it is able to close down is perhaps a charity’s greatest measure of success.