Creating Value Together: From Partnerships to Mergers

Gillian Murray
Chief Executive, Pilotlight

The Pilotlight conference is one of my favourite days of the year: it is an opportunity both to celebrate what we have achieved over the year with our friends and partners and to get our collective minds working on some thought-provoking topics. This year we packed out the splendid City Hall venue with leaders from the private, public and third sectors, to discuss partnerships, collaboration and mergers.

Geraldine Blake from London Funders kicked us off by telling us that there are over 160,000 registered charities in the UK, but in 2016 there were only 51 mergers in the sector. For many of our Pilotlighters (the senior business leaders who support our partner charities), this small number of mergers was a shock. How could this be, when in the world of business mergers and acquisitions are a part of everyday life?

In addition to benefits like expanding services and broadening reach, Geraldine pointed to the opportunities to circulate best practice – each charity has a unique perspective on their circumstances and can be very protective of their service users. On the other side there are, of course, significant financial motives: amid funding cuts and moves towards contracting services, mergers are often a means of ensuring a sustainable future for many charities.

Merger has, in my experience, been something of a dirty word in the third sector. We were therefore delighted to hear from Atara Fridler, Director of Crisis Skylight Brent on their recent merger because, in spite of the challenges involved, it has clearly created value for their service users, resulting in more resources to help more people. Interestingly, Brent Skylight approached the merger in a good financial position, and later in the day we discussed the importance for boards, whatever the circumstances of their organisations, to have mergers on the agenda at least once a year.

If your charity isn’t ready for a merger then there are other innovative forms of collaboration to consider; Claire Park and Penny Pullinger told the story of the brilliantly successful Gateway Group, a collaboration begun by Sight Advice South Lakes and Age UK South Lakeland, bringing together over forty organisations around Kendal in Cumbria. Using an online open access system and a multiple agency referral system, the Gateway processes over 1,000 referrals a year, serving the predominantly elderly population more effectively.

With all these examples of collaboration and mergers fresh in their minds our panel discussion was lively, throwing up as many questions as possible answers, especially as we also revealed our pre-conference survey findings which encouraged a wider debate:

  • 57% of those surveyed strongly agreed/agreed that there are too many charities in the UK
  • 75% strongly agreed/agreed that competition is good for charities
  • 67% strongly agreed/agreed that local charities create more value for service users than national one

As I spoke to people during the closing drinks, I could see there had been a great many lightbulb moments as people thought of ways to bring what the speakers had said to bear on their charities or their Pilotlight projects. I feel very lucky that our community is made up of so many thoughtful and committed people – our strapline says it all: Because great causes deserve great talent.

Take a look at the best photos and comments from our conference – click here to see the #Pilotlight2017 Twitter Moment.

Change Management, Growth & Sustainability, Partnerships


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