We’re following the debate about whether there are too many charities, with the most recent input from outgoing Charity Commission Chief Executive Sam Younger, talking in the Independent about the 6,661 new charities applying to register this year, up 16% on last.
At a recent Cranfield Trust event at Manchester Business School, a student on a Masters’ programme said ‘I want to develop my career in the international development area and start my own charity’. While applauding the wish to get stuck into the world of international development, I was struck by his lack of interest in joining the many admirable charities already operating in this field, and his lack of focus: he wasn’t driven by a desire to address a particular social issue or need for support, but by the excitement of the sector.
Over the last 15 years, the sector has changed dramatically in terms of career options and job mobility, it now offers fantastic appeal for young people seeking an exciting career, graduate schemes such as CharityWorks, and high level leadership opportunities such as our own Cranfield Trust MBA Scholarships at Cranfield School of Management, and the Clore Social Leadership Programme. I’m delighted that the voluntary sector is a strong and exciting career option for people at different stages of their careers. As well as this, the sector has long been considered to have an entrepreneurial element – people are committed to providing services to address particular needs or gaps and often start new organisations to support vulnerable people they know, or local needs they identify. More recently, the phrase ‘social entrepreneur’ has been positively viewed as a magical combination of business entrepreneurship and social values, and social enterprise has attracted warm support from politicians, funders and financiers alike.
Do we need to stop for a moment to consider what’s happening with these market forces? In the commercial world being an entrepreneur is also viewed very positively, but as Dan Corry pointed out in a recent talk at the RSA, market forces operate to either push out those businesses which are unsuccessful, or business success often leads to consolidation as larger companies snap up successful market entrants once established. The voluntary sector doesn’t work like this, as many people can sustain charities on very low incomes, through dedicated volunteer support, and there is a notoriously low interest in mergers.
There are many well-rehearsed arguments about why having a very fragmented sector is an ineffective use of resources – but also, rightly, many celebrations of new organisations with great achievements. At times of austerity, the sector needs to show itself as thoughtful, and to make the best use of resources. So what should we do to foster a spirit of enterprise, rather than entrepreneurship, and to make people stop and think before setting up their ‘own’, new charity?
In our work supporting 250 charities a year with pro bono consultancy, we’re constantly aware that many small to medium sized charities don’t have much headspace for horizon scanning – and often don’t know which other organisations are in similar or closely related fields to their own. Helping to make these links and minimise service gaps will help them, help their service users, and perhaps reduce demand for new services from new market entrants – many local infrastructure organisations or national sub sector umbrellas are very active in this important service mapping and contact work already, but there’s more to be done.
I don’t think that people setting up charities – especially with that powerful driver of commemorating someone they’ve loved and lost – can be or should necessarily be stopped, but Sam Younger could leave a legacy which might help people to think more carefully before applying to register. Including a requirement to list other charities operating in the area you’re interested in – whether geographical, functional or sub-sector related and a short explanation of why your new charity will meet a need they don’t cover would at least help people entering the sector to think about how their service will fit in, address real needs, and have a distinctive purpose.
Chairman Mao’s phrase ‘let a hundred flowers blossom’ was thought to be a ruse to encourage dissenters to identify themselves to the regime. The sector, and the Commission, should not discourage people from entry, but we should all do all we can to maximise our mutual resources through working together, and understanding how our combined services are delivering against needs, and to prepare the ground thoroughly before planting new flowers.
Amanda Tincknell, Chief Executive, The Cranfield Trust.