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Senior leaders’ egos can block charity mergers, conference told

04 Jul 2023 News

Charity mergers are prevented from happening because of senior leaders’ egos, delegates at a recent event heard.

Speaking at Charity Finance Group’s annual conference last week, Ben Clarkson, chief operating officer at Asthma + Lung UK, reflected on the successful merger of equals between Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation.

He told attendees that mergers in the charity sector do not happen often because of “ego” getting in the way, with the chief executives not wanting to work together or trustees unable to agree.

Clarkson said that there should be more mergers in the sector for the benefit of beneficiaries.

‘Ego gets in the way’

Clarkson said that one of the reasons why charity mergers can be blocked is that “ego gets in the way”.

He gave the example of mergers in the commercial world where companies have to think about things such as “profit imperative” and “shareholders” and how mergers and acquisitions can be part of their strategies. 

“It doesn’t tend to happen very much in the charity world and often what happens is ego gets in the way so people, perhaps the chief executives, don’t want to work together or trustees can’t agree,” he said.

Clarkson added: “I think there should be more of them [mergers]. We [trustees] tend to think about us as an organisation and what we’re doing as being distinct from other players in the market and we don’t tend to look out and say: ‘Who else is doing something similar? Could we join forces with another charity doing very similar stuff or a charity doing complementary things? We could move back-office functions, those sorts of things.’

“In a room full of accountants, and I’m one, it’s always difficult to say: ‘We don’t need so many accountants.’ But there are things like that you can think about: can we be more efficient as an organisation? People feel: ‘We’re special, we’re different.’ It’s that ego factor and because there isn’t another force coming from here going: ‘Well, actually we want you to get your profits up so you need to go and acquire some more market share over there to balance that out,’ that tends to be the order of the day.”

Merging was a ‘no-brainer’

Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation merged on 1 January 2020 to become the Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation Partnership before rebranding to Asthma + Lung UK in February 2022.

Clarkson said it was a “no-brainer” for these “two massive lung charities” to merge, adding that “financial and mission drivers” were the two main reasons for the merger.

“We didn’t want to be in the kill zone anymore. It was a bit risky. So we thought: ‘We’re going to be a bigger boat in stormy seas.’ We didn’t necessarily predict what those stormy seas would be. I’m not saying we had a crystal ball and predicted the pandemic, cost-of-living crisis and all those things, but we anticipated things were going to be difficult,” he said.

On the mission, he added: “This is the main one, being a stronger single voice for people with lung conditions. It was at the heart of what we were trying to do. If you think about it in terms of things like advocacy, we’re trying to meet a minister. That minister has only got 30 minutes and they’ve got Asthma UK and the British Lung Foundation competing for that half an hour, they can’t speak to both.

“Being a single charity gave us that opportunity, which was really important during the pandemic, and we felt that by joining forces we could do a better job overall for our beneficiaries. And that has to be at the heart of any decision to merge.”

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