RNIB chair Kevin Carey has an ambition to grow the RNIB Group into an enterprise with turnover of half a billion pounds.
While stressing that this was a “personal ambition that I have not even shared with my board”, Carey admitted that he believed the charity needed to grow to this size in order to properly compete with the private sector for public service contracts.
“Unless you are big nobody listens to you,” he said. “I don’t want us to be that big just for the sake of it, I want us to be able to compete properly for public sector contracts with commercial organisations of that size.”
Carey said that charities can’t currently compete with the likes of Serco or Capita on price because they can’t achieve the same economies of scale that such enormous private-sector groups can.
RNIB Group already growing
In the past couple of years, RNIB has augmented its core organisation by adding other blindness charities and building the ‘RNIB Group’. Action for Blind People was the first – it retained its own brand but some RNIB trustees have joined the Action for Blind People board and vice versa.
The Cardiff Institute for the Blind was next – in June 2009 it became an ‘associate charity’ of the RNIB Group. The latest addition was Talking Newspapers and Magazines in February this year – it maintained its brand identity, workforce and board of trustees but its fundraising and marketing staff joined RNIB.
Two local blindness societies in Newcastle have since merged into Action for Blind People too.
Carey said the circumstances of each franchise arrangement depended on the circumstances of the individual charity. “Some have wanted to be ‘hoovered up’, others prefer to stay at arm’s length,” he said.
“If there is a charity with a shaky balance sheet that comes to us for help, my thoughts are going to be ‘If I let you collapse, all the value in your balance sheet will be lost and we will have to rebuild it from scratch, so it’s better for us if we franchise with you’. After all, our business is to provide services for people.
“In this climate your local PTA or church will still be ok, and the biggest charities will probably be ok, but all those in the middle are going to get belted to bits. There’s going to be a whole load of mergers and acquisitions going on, so excuse us if we act like capitalists but it’s the only way to achieve growth and serve more people.”
Asked whether RNIB was reducing services in order to take advantage of the current economic climate and grow the group, he said: “Very little, but we are looking at what we spend very carefully. And if we are, it’s more likely to be research that we’re cutting back on rather than services.”
Carey also dismissed the government’s understanding of the sector as “really bad” and said its localism agenda was a romantic notion.
“The kind of boutique services that the government wants from us is precisely the kind we can’t supply without it costing over the odds,” he said. Equally, there are lots of services that simply can’t be provided economically from a local platform. “Look at the Talking Books service – that has 40,000 members and a whole lot of machinery. You couldn’t provide that without a national infrastructure.”
Charities look for help 'too late'
He had a word of advice for charities facing hardship, too: examine your options early on.
“Charities invariably come to us too late,” he said. “They wait too long thinking something will turn up and save them; meanwhile they burn their reserves and then there’s nothing left.”