Help for not for profit and charity trustees

Spoilt for choice

large number of charities doing the same thing

My email box has become full of friends complaining (sort of) about the large number of messages they get from a wide range of charities many of which are campaigning for broadly the same thing. So in addition to compassion fatigue there is what we might call ‘confusion fatigue’. The problem is that there is only so much people can contribute financially to these various causes and there is a feeling of remorse induced that more cannot be done or given.

The question raised is: cannot some of them amalgamate rather than split their efforts? New charities spring up because people are fired up by a problem or something they care about and decide to do something about it. Often there is already a charity doing ‘something’ but people feel more needs to be done, hence a new group is formed which may morph into a charity as time goes on.

I’ve had experience of this with a new group I have been involved with. The existing charity offers minimum help and we felt much more was needed so a new group was formed thus adding – some might think – to the confusion. We think we were right to offer a superior service to that already on offer.

In the commercial world, competition is lauded as a good thing, offering stimulus, giving choice to the consumer and contributing to what the economist Schumpeter called ‘creative destruction’. This belief does not transfer easily to the charity world it seems. People feel it is wasteful and that charities should come together more. Of course, the people saying this are not usually the users of the charity in the sense of being a ‘customer’. It would be interesting to know what they (the customers) think: would the homeless, hungry, or indebted people prefer fewer charities? One suspects they are more interested in results than the mechanism of the providers.

I think the benefits of diversity outweigh the problems of potential confusion. After all, a charity has to start somewhere. I live near to Trussell Trust the foodbank people which started as a small operation sending food to Romania. Now it helps two and a half million through a nationwide network of foodbanks. They weren’t the first so what if someone had said ‘there are too many charities doing the same thing already’?

There is also an argument that as the scale of problems hitting people – not just in this country but around the world – requires a steady flow of people willing to give of their time to help. There are also gaps in the market so a new organisation is not necessarily treading on the toes of an existing charity.

Thought experiment: imagine three charities A, B & C all basically promoting the same cause. Each has a membership and fund-raising activities which raise £X ‘000, £Y ‘000 and £Z ‘000 respectively. They combine. What do you think the new combined charity will raise? £(X+Y+Z) ‘000? or less than this? My guess is less unless the new combined charity works hard to promote itself.

I suspect also that the flow of requests for help is a kind of reminder of what difficult times we live in and how more and more people are struggling. There are many who may not want those reminders as it upsets their world view. When foodbanks first started to mushroom just over a decade ago, there was no shortage of politicians of a certain persuasion who derided the need for them, or who claimed it was just free food for scroungers and it was all to do with people leading chaotic lives.

Peter Curbishley

Author of How to be a Successful Trustee

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