As part of Acevo's 30th birthday celebrations, Debra Allcock Tyler and Patrick Olszowski debate whether there are too many charities.
Are there too many charities?
No. Charities exist because there is need and support for them. The needs are many and varied hence the myriad of diverse organisations. When either the need or the support disappears so does the charity.
More charities means more choice: for beneficiaries, donors, funders and volunteers.
It means more challenge to established orthodoxies.
To argue that there is more efficiency in having a smaller number of larger charities is to misunderstand the true benefit to society of voluntary endeavour and the fundamental nature of civil society.
Even if the efficiency argument were true (it isn’t), a principle of a free democracy is the ability of folk to come together in service of something they care about in whichever way they choose. There is room for us all.
UK charities do heroic, irreplaceable work, stepping in to help people where governments and markets can’t or won’t.
In an ever more complex and interconnected world, the problems charities work on require sophisticated approaches. This demands money, expertise, excellent leadership, and an ability to measure impact, collaborate and try things. I believe we have too few charities that are able to consistently excel in all these areas.
I believe we need fewer, better run, braver organisations, who give power to those they serve and network by default.
Some charities do heroic, irreplaceable work indeed. But the vast majority do frankly unheroic but also irreplaceable work. Work that feels small in scale and scope but is huge in transformative effect.
Getting an old lady to her diabetes clinic; sitting with the family of a terminally ill child; running the youth club; counselling traumatised victims of domestic violence in their mother tongues. They do it well because they are connected at a local level; because they are awesomely well run; because they maximise every resource and are deeply rooted in their communities.
Because there are lots of them there is greater reach.
I’m agnostic about size. I believe we need more brilliantly run charities. More that deliver impact rather than chase money. More who develop coherent strategies and tactics. Ask many charity staff and “awesomely run” would not be the words they use. Burnout is endemic.
The scale of the challenges that our beneficiaries face, such as the rollback of state support, austerity, climate change and restrictions on charities mean that we have to continually challenge ourselves to respond faster and smarter.
Fewer charities doing less stuff could equate to a far greater impact.
Do you think that charities should merge in order to have greater impact?
Yes, in principle I am all for mergers of charities, providing the leadership do less, better.
I do agree with you that there are big challenges and that we need brilliantly run charities to meet them.
My argument is that they already exist and having fewer won’t make their delivery better. It is not my experience that quality and quantity are mutually exclusive.
In terms of doing less stuff, what would you stop? Local community transport groups? Prioritise cancer research and stop palliative care? Restrict women’s refuges to provision of safe accommodation and drop counselling? It seems to me that we mustn’t confuse what seems efficient with what is actually effective.
Having too many charities creates fissures for the state to exploit. Fissures which open as we are encouraged to compete with fellow charities or when legislation like the Trade Union and Lobbying Act or restrictions on legal aid are brought in.
Each of these take time, money and effort. The state’s divide and rule tactics are making charities less confident in advocating robustly for change, in the public interest.
I want to see a strong third sector, which I believe is an essential bulwark of our democracy. Having fewer, more focused charities that have the capability to constantly listen, rapidly innovate and respond, without fear, to these challenges, offers the best chance for the maximum good for the most people.
Isn't that where membership bodies like NCVO, Bond and Acevo come in? And isn't their strength diversity and numbers of membership?
Membership bodies can be great. Or they can lead to a lowest common denominator approach. I want to see coalitions that assume consent and so are able to move fast and take risks.
Governments want a small number of large charities because they think they will find them easier to deal with and manipulate with promises of access and funding.
Charities in their thousands are harder to control. Which is why you would find many ministers agreeing with you.
Debra, is it also the case that thousands of charities are harder to coordinate, in coalitions, and by membership bodies?
Because there are so many charities there is a vital need for coalitions and umbrella bodies. When you are small and local you are very focused on your cause and your beneficiaries which means you often have to rely on networks, such as Acevo, to make sure that your voice is being heard in the right places at the right time.
Myriad charities means myriad voices and finding a cohesive voice is not always easy. But skilled bodies know how to support and represent diverse voices. The problem is that no-one wants to fund them. If I were in government I would prioritise national and local infrastructure bodies – they’re one of the most powerful and useful tools for understanding and engaging local communities.
Importantly, we should think about what the public want. They fund, support and volunteer for all the charities we currently have. Who has the right to take away their choice? And which ones would you close? There are the exact right number of charities. Not too many, not too few. The mix changes – that’s all.
In the private sector, mergers and takeovers seem much more frequent than in the third sector. Are you saying that no cause, that no beneficiaries, would benefit from two or more charities joining forces?
I don’t object to mergers and acquisitions in principle. But my experience is that they often don’t achieve in practice what they set out to. Too often parties go in wanting the core values or brand of both to remain – and invariably one disappears.
The best charities combine all the information they get from their supporters, donors and beneficiaries with their own expertise to come up with new fundraising approaches, set the best opening hours for helplines, decide whether to oppose new legislation, and ultimately remain relevant.
It won’t be me deciding which charities thrive, it will be those we serve and delight.
Well you’re certainly right that it won’t be us deciding which charities thrive and which do not. The fact is that those that aren’t delivering for their beneficiaries or can’t attract funding or support don’t survive. They either get closed down or lie dormant on the register. That’s the beauty of a democracy.
If people care about something, they are able to come together to fix it in any way they choose. The cold hard facts are that around 6,000 charities die a year and around 6,000 are born. The register is incredibly stable in absolute numbers. Its magnificence is its range, depth and variety. How big a charity is, or how big the register is, does not dictate how effective any individual charity is. Ineffective charities simply don’t survive in the long term. A form of voluntary sector natural selection if you will. So the answer to the question “Are there too many charities?” is still “No. There is the exact right number.”
My position remains that we need fewer, more capable charities. We need people, money and new thinking flowing to those organisations that are best at tackling the biggest problems the world is facing right now. While these resources don’t flow to the most effective charities, there is an opportunity lost.
I want charities led by those they serve, able to try stuff rapidly and speak out as our national and international debate coarsens. This will demand courage and constant listening. It won’t be easy but if we can reclaim our radical roots, the world will benefit.
Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change. She is an author and a trustee of In Kind Direct. Debra was a co-founder of the Small Charities Coalition.
Patrick Olszowski is the founder of Outrageous Impact. He’s previously worked at charities including ShareAction, Stroke Association, Mencap and Action Medical Research.
To celebrate its 30th birthday, Acevo asked 30 people in and around civil society for their thought-provoking insights. This article first appeared on Acevo's website here. Join the conversation at #acevo30.