Today was a strange day. It was the first time I have spoken to a member of our Royal Family. I spend most of my time talking to the disadvantaged, underprivileged and those that society neglects. It is rare for me to meet someone who is followed around by a team of people and cameras.
I have been Chief Executive of the Small Charities Coalition for six months. Within that short period of time, it has become evident just how much the small charities of our country need more people to champion the great work they are doing and promote their voice at a national level. Today my job required me to do just that when my Chair and I were given ten minutes in a private room with His Royal Highness, the Duke of Cambridge.
What I wanted to say
A week before the meeting, I asked my friends, family and peers what they would say if they were given time with an heir to the throne. The responses were fascinating. There were the inevitable quirky comments about his recent haircut (mostly from my brother!) but there was also an abundance of people wanting to make sure that our future King understands just how vital small charities are to communities across the country.
Armed with support, advice and case studies from many Small Charities Coalition members, I was fired up and ready to highlight why small and specialist can be so beautiful and big isn’t always better. I was not prepared for what happened before we met.
The bit I wasn’t expecting
Prior to our meeting, His Royal Highness gave a speech to the attendees of the Charity Commission’s Annual Public Meeting. I had been pre-warned that he would be championing collaboration. I was delighted to hear this; the Small Charities Coalition was set up to enable small charities to be able to access more resources, and have a greater impact, by coming together as a group of organisations with shared interests. What I was not prepared for was the Prince’s emphasis on mergers. He highlighted the merger of Beating Bowel Cancer and Bowel Cancer UK as best practice and something that should be emulated. He also suggested that we should encourage people to join forces with existing charities rather than starting their own.
What I actually said
From everything I have heard, the merger of the country’s biggest bowel cancer charities has been a positive one. It is great to see two organisations recognising that, in this circumstance, there was no need for them both to exist independently. Yet promoting mergers as a positive move for all charities, and discouraging new charities to set up could be dangerous. After failing to execute an effective curtsy and awkwardly fumbling over the words “Your Highness”, that is exactly what I told him.
The reality of merging charities
Julia, the Chair of our Board of Trustees, helpfully gave the example of a merger that she had seen between three lunch clubs for older people. Through the merger of three charities cost-savings had been identified and economies of scale were introduced. As part of this process, it was decided that, rather than three separate lunches happening each week, there should be one, larger lunch, hosted in a central area. Resultantly, some older people were no longer able to travel to the venue, the intimacy of the lunches had been lost and the standard of the food went down. The service had been made cheaper and “more efficient” but the merger had negatively affected the quality of experience for the older people it was originally designed for.
His Royal Highness suggested that these sorts of examples where mergers are not appropriate will always exist, particularly in rural areas across the UK but, as a whole, the sector’s impact could be increased through the merger and collaboration of charities doing similar things across the country. I agree with him that collaboration and partnership working can really help strengthen the reach and impact of organisations (and I have seen great examples of this happening across the Small Charities Coalition. BUT (yes, it’s a big but) mergers and collaboration are not the same thing. The two words are not interchangeable and should not be treated as such.
What I wish I had said
What the Prince and I did not get the chance to discuss was the issue of whether there are too many charities in the UK and his comment about discouraging new charities from starting up. I will be writing to His Royal Highness to see whether he would be open to continuing the discussion at a future date. It is an area that fascinates me. We live in a country that heavily encourages entrepreneurship and there are capitalist organisations actively championing the belief that some of the biggest growth in our global economy is coming out of the small business sector. Yet, when it comes to the charity sector, we expect people with a passion to create change to begin by approaching well-established organisations (who are often stuck in their ways) and convincing them to change their strategy and/or business plan…rather than allowing them to start something from scratch with fresh eyes and new energy.
There are some areas where we definitely do not need another new charity focusing on tackling an issue – I know cancer research is one of the areas widely quoted as one of these. Yet I would urge His Royal Highness, as well as ordinarily members of the public, not to discourage fresh ideas and innovation just because someone doesn’t have a charity registration number behind them at the moment.