Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Please, work together already!

The opening plenary of the Fundraising Institute Australia (FIA) conference last week featured a selection of stories about donors around the world. It also challenged fundraisers to respond to the global financial cock-up by doing pretty much what they know they should anyway. Three problems were addressed: parochialism, complacency and short-termism.

Looking at parochialism, the need for mergers was discussed. But reluctance to merge could also be part of complacency and short-termism. We all know what we need to do about mergers and federations - but we don't do it.

In two other sessions I heard about mergers and how to deal with the messy federated structures in so many charities. I attended one presented by three sector leaders, Dr Lyn Roberts from National Heart Foundation, Darren Peters formerly of the Australian Paralympics Association, and Gerard Menses from Vision Australia. All talked about the issues they encountered in deciding to bring a bunch of organisations together - especially the problems. But they still went ahead and did it.

It seemed to me that the biggest problems of merging are ego and parochialism, which are very tightly linked. I mean parochialism in a geographical and task context.

Speaking of geography, it's ridiculous to think that because I live just south of the QLD/NSW border I would somehow need different services as a beneficiary, or react differently as a donor to those a few kilometres north. Surely a retired accountant in Sydney has more in common with a retired accountant in Perth than a brickie in Sydney?

And by "task" I mean the kind of crazy, so-called important differences between charities that are really irrelevant. For example, when I worked at Imperial Cancer Research Fund in the UK we were pretty much taught to "knock" our rivals, Cancer Research Campaign, because we funded our own researchers whereas they gave grants. You reckon someone with cancer or a donor gives a toss?

Luckily the two charities got over the ego problems and merged, going from a combined income of about $240 million when I was there, to raising the best part of a billion dollars now (I must add that the increase in income was not a consequence of my leaving!!).

I look around and see tons of charities doing what seems to be the same thing, split only by artificial geographical lines or irrelevant differences.

A recent example from my travels was of two charities that provide camps for kids with certain needs. One runs the camps with trained volunteers, the other with paid professionals. One looks after kids aged x to y, the other y to z.

Hey - how about running camps for kids between ages x and z using professionals and volunteers?

And slashing the costs of 2 x CEOs, 2 x boards, 2 x finance teams, 2 x fundraising teams, 2 x offices etc.

Maybe the current financial crisis finally forces us to face these tough decisions. After all, in the UK nearly half of all mergers were actually rescues of an ailing organisation.

In the US, mergers of not-for-profits are, according to Gerard Menses, running at the same rate as those of for-profits.

He identified that the big merger between agencies helping the vision impaired paid for itself within a couple of years.

So please - dump the egos, parochialism and short termism. We can't afford so many charities doing the same stuff. Donors love mergers. Merge away!

I write a monthly column called 'The Agitator' (not the same as the pretty cool fundraising website of the same name) for an Australian fundraising magazine's e-bulletin. Check out their archives, including this call for mergers on their website. Also Check out the other agitator here).

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