There are too many charities and they need to adapt the way they operate to the modern world. This is according to Mike Adamson, chief executive of the British Red Cross who was speaking during a panel session at the think tank NPC’s annual conference in London this week. Adamson said:
“There are far too many of us charities…it becomes counterproductive when you have too many chief executives and too many back office functions…we need to broaden alliances and collaboration to achieve as much impact as we possibly can”.
Mike Adamson does have a point. According to the Charity Commission there are currently approximately 182,778 registered charities in England and Wales; with no less than 1057 cancer charities listed alone. As someone who has had cause to access cancer support charities in recent years I can certainly vouch for a degree of confusion / irritation in trying to identify the appropriate pathways I needed to take.
Against this backdrop a recent poll conducted by Populus on behalf of the Charity Commission has confirmed that the overall level of public trust and confidence in charities has fallen to 5.7 out of 10 this year. This is a sharp decrease from a headline figure of 6.7 in 2012 and 2014 respectively.
Amongst those who say their trust and confidence has decreased, a significant number attribute this to media coverage about charities (33%) and particularly media stories about how they spend their donations (32%). Another important contributor is the aggressive marketing and fundraising techniques used by charities to elicit donations (18%). However, importantly, only 7% of the public believe that there are too many charities or that they need to become more efficient (5%).
In my view this is encouraging and despite the loss of trust and confidence in the sector, I think we should be encouraging even more diversity, not less. Of course, greater efficiencies and better outcomes could be realised through some mergers and acquisitions – twas ever thus - but given the reduction in public sector funding and more and more charities having to provide an ever wider range of services, to meet ever greater need, some duplication and fragmentation in the sector is simply unavoidable.
Moreover if you take a closer look at the register, most of the charities listed are actually very small. At least 40% have an annual income of less than £10,000 per annum. The reality is that these are often neighbourhood based organisations providing much needed local services, run by dedicated local volunteers. This is bourne out by the Populus research which identified that people (3 out of 5) are more likely to trust and support charities if they are providing services within and for their local community. Or similarly they may be charities that have been set up by families as a response to very personal and tragic circumstances. ‘Big is better’ is simply not a viable option for either of these scenarios.
What strikes me is that we should really be celebrating not consolidating. New digital technology, for example, is helping charities - of all shapes and sizes - to become even more efficient / innovative and this looks set to grow, with new energy, ideas and abilities flowing into the sector as a result. We should welcome this, even if it means more fragmentation, more duplication and more ‘chaos’ in the long run.