Susan Smith argues that exploring the possibility of merging with another cause has never been more important than now
If charities didn’t come together to merge at the height of lockdown then they probably aren’t going to now, one charity chief said to me at the end of last year.
External oblivion is the only reason that charities would consider joining up was the implication. So, now the immediate crisis has past and more charities are confident of their survival, why bother?
I believe because service users need you too. Now, more than ever in our lifetime, charities are Never More Needed to keep people safe in their homes and that job is just going to get harder as lockdown eases.
Lockdown has led to increases in domestic violence and child abuse, created high levels of unemployment and de-skilled a tranche of workers who have been furloughed or unemployed for a year. Everyone’s mental health has been affected but we know its hit younger and older people and those managing existing conditions hardest. Many have exercised less and eaten more and face the health consequences of that. There will definitely be a Covid fallout, we just don’t yet know how bad it will be.
On the other hand, for all the talk of the new normal, many people who are physically or mentally better off are desperate to get back to the old norm of cheap consumerism, peppered by boozy nights out, disposable clothing, foreign holidays and as many cars as they have bedrooms. Cosmetic surgery has apparently been booming during lockdown.
In my mind these two things don’t add up. Voluntary organisations working on the front-line have to assume they’ve got a tough job in front of them, and they can’t assume additional help is going to come from central or local government, businesses or the public.
A good example of a positive response to this at UK-level was the recent announcement form Clic Sargent, the Ellen MacArthur Cancer Trust and the Teenage Cancer Trust of a new partnership. They will share resources and information, refer families and young people to each other’s services and campaign together.
Kate Collins, chief executive of the Teenage Cancer Trust hit the nail on the head when she said: “As organisations and as leaders, it's important that we say it’s OK that we work together – in fact it’s expected, because this is what children and young people with cancer need.
“We have to ask how we can be greater than the sum of our parts – it might feel a bit radical, but we have to face it that there isn’t enough money to go around and we’re all taking financial hits. If organisations start retreating and competing, that isn’t going to work.”
It’s interesting though that all three organisations were quick to deny the m-word – this is not a step towards merger they insist. Merger has become a dirty word within the third sector, no doubt in response to right-wing media and political dialogue about the so-called bloated charity sector.
In Scotland there has been a lot of talk of successful partnerships across the third sector during Covid, but a deathly silence when it comes to long-term strategic partnerships like this or mergers. Perhaps everyone has been too focused on the immediate crisis, but it worries me that charities may still be trying to protect their own turf over the needs of their community.
This is why the next Never More Needed webinar is exploring this very issue of strategic partnership and merger. I will be talking to two chief executives who know lots about the benefits of working in partnership and ultimately merging their organisations.
Lorraine McGrath, chief executive of the Simon Community Scotland, can explain how merging with Streetwork contributed to the success that led it to be crowned Scottish Charity of the Year 2020. Meanwhile Pauline Gordon from Senscot can talk about merging social enterprise support bodies during Covid and her experience of supporting other organisation through restructures and mergers.
Merger doesn’t have to be about creating a super charity that swallows up your purpose, it can simply mean bringing together expertise to improve the services you offer your community now and in the future.
Susan Smith is SCVO's campaigns manager. Sign up to Covid: The Age of Charity Mergers? free webinar, 5 March, 12.15pm.