Wednesday, 27 April 2016

The Value of Charities

Can competition between charities undermine their value? It’s a question – perhaps a controversial one – that sometimes bothers me.

A recent New Philanthropy Capital (NPC) report Untapped Potential looks at the role of charities in health and social care. This is undoubtedly a field where charities can make a real difference, and the potential is widely acknowledged – not least in the NHS Five-Year Forward View. The NPC report is well worth reading, and two key conclusions are:

  • The health and care system needs to ensure funding and contracting arrangements support collaboration between charities and other providers, and minimise the burdens on providers.
  • The charity sector needs to be wary of ‘asking for more’ in a resource-starved system. Frame conversations in terms of added value, not just the resources required.

These are themes most are aware of and many are actively pursuing. The vast majority of charities know that they need to demonstrate real outcomes, not just outputs, to engage commissioners and other funders. This produces a welcome focus on how charities can maximise their impact, and much current debate centres on the best methods and tools to help them do this. This risk however is that, in demonstrating their value, charities will seek to out-do each other and create competition where there should be collaboration.

When I first heard that Leeds alone had around 3,000 charities, it had me wondering. Too many? Surely there can’t be 3,000 different ‘good causes’? Maybe so, but there are many more than 3,000 people who benefit from these charities’ activities. And all of them are individuals, for whom choice could be a critical consideration. Certainly in the mental health field, where I’ve completed several evaluation projects, any “one size fits all” approach would be completely wrong.

Those who run charities are generally passionate people. They believe in what they’re doing and want to show that their approach delivers results. But surviving and thriving when funding is tight inevitably means an element of competition, whatever the source of that funding. I’ve seen instances where there’s a fine line between providing choice and competing to provide essentially the same service. I can think of some great examples of collaboration between charities (even mergers in a few cases), but I’ve also seen cases where these opportunities have been missed.

Charities provide value from many perspectives: service users, families, wider communities, their volunteers, public services and more. But I believe value should focus first and foremost on the people they aim to help. It should be less about “what value can my charity add?” and more about “what added value do people need, and how can my charity contribute to that?” Please, let’s not create the impression – however misleading – of charities putting their own interests above those of the people they serve.

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