Thursday, November 29, 2012

5 Reasons Why Charity Mergers Work

Based on the for-profit track record, charities should stay away from mergers. Given that many academic studies find that a large proportion of for-profit mergers actually decrease profits and efficiency why would charitable organizations risk this path?

As discussed previously merging charities has risks, but I'm increasingly of the opinion that the benefits outweigh the challenges. Here are 5 key reasons why merging can and does make sense.

  1. Like-minded organizations that come together to focus on a single issue or cause can accomplish far more than each working alone. What's been called "collective impact" is all the buzz right now in the charitable world simply because it works: just ask Advancing Philanthropy!
  2. My contention is that there are simply too many charities - think about the number of different organizations that have overlapping Missions or seek to duplicate the work already being done by another group.  With 161,000 charities and non-profits in Canada alone surely there's room for fewer to do better work with reduced confusion and re-work.
  3. In the spirit of reduced confusion, clearly mergers would allow precious donor dollars to be more accurately and effectively applied.  And the obverse is that fewer charities would also allow donor dollars to support more impact and less overhead: two charities that merge into one only need one photocopier, one reception area, and one kitchen microwave, not two of each.  Also, with fewer competing messages for donations it would be easier (and more cost effective) for vital charitable messages to break through and be heard.
  4. The charitable world is all about passion, but like money there are only so many volunteers and so many donated hours to go around.  A merged organization would (ideally) draw on the strengths that existed in the originals, ensuring that 1+1=3.
  5. The best reason to pursue mergers, collaboration and collective impact in the charitable world is that it's very hard to do.  Albeit a simplification, in the for profit world the firm with enough money can buy out the one that's smaller.  In the charitable world that doesn't work (donor backlash, government regulations, volunteer boards, etc.), and organizations that seek to "merge" need to find common ground and shared passion.  The same volunteers and varied stakeholders that can make decision-making within charities so challenging present natural barriers to ill-considered collaborations.  So the fact that it takes so much work and trust to merge mean that it is likely the outcomes will be better in the long run.  Remember, money can't buy you love...
I'm personally aware of several great examples where charity mergers, collaboration and collective impact are already working well, and expect we'll see more examples in this tough economy. It appears that 1+1 does indeed equal 3.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

3 Ways Little Cuts Hurt Charities Most

My last post talked about charities closing their doors not due to a lack of need for their services or offering poor services, but simply due to a lack of funds.  It's also true that seemingly small changes, minor increases in costs, can have a disproportionate impact on charities.  Here are three key ways that "little cuts" can be painful in ways that are different from for profit organizations.
  1. Increases in costs, say for example a new fee for garbage pick up, are hard for both charities and for- profit firms to absorb. However, while firms can "pass on" these increased costs to clients, charities have no such option. So for example when the City of Toronto imposes a new garbage collection fee on over 1,000 charities, there's no customer to pay more to offset this cost increase, just a decrease in services to those who can least afford it.
  2. Charities have proportionately smaller voice for their size than their for-profit peers (#9 on my Top 10 list of differences). From Boards of Trade to business leaders that have worked within government (and vice-versa), businesses are simply better connected to government. Also, businesses are seen as providing jobs / tax revenue to all levels of government as opposed to perceived as begging from / costing money from all levels of government.  Not the case you say?  Well, in the example of the garbage fee the charities were denied the ability to protest: my bet is that business leaders wouldn't have been treated this way.
  3. Another way cuts and increased costs hurt charities most is more philosophical in nature.  By definition charities help those most in need.  So when their revenue is reduced those who suffer from the reduction in services are those who are most at risk. And where charities are providing preventative and proactive supports, keeping people from "costing the system" even more down the road, these extra costs (touted at cost savings) can actually cost the rest of us a lot more in the future.
No doubt that new costs to any organization can be difficult to manage, but the charity and non-profit world is often hurt the most when this happens.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

When Charities Fail

Over the last many months I've watched and listened with dismay as many charities have struggled in this economic and political climate.  This isn't a big surprise and clearly many people (including me) forecasted a tough year in 2012. However, like a death in the family, even when you know it's coming it's not easy.

Such is the case with Touchstone Youth Centre here in Toronto. This organization wasn't on my radar as a charity in trouble, but late last month this is what was shared with key partners and stakeholders:

Dear Sir or Madam,

It is with great regret we must inform you that Touchstone Youth Centre will be ending its service as of November 30th, 2012. We are closing due to ongoing financial challenges.

Touchstone Youth Centre has been providing services to youth between the ages of 16 and 24 years old since 1991. We have managed to provide emergency shelter services to over 400 youth each year while providing outreach services to more than 80 youth each month. Unfortunately, as a result of our current financial state, the Board of Directors made the difficult decision of discontinuing service.

The City is seeking a replacement operator for the facility to be in place as soon as possible. It is not possible to have one in place by November 30th. The City and Touchstone Youth Centre will work co-operatively to find safe places for existing clients. Admissions to the shelter will be suspended November 1st to facilitate this process. As soon as the City can choose an appropriate operator, a re-opening date will be announced. This is expected to be late January.

We thank you for your hard work, dedication and commitment to Touchstone Youth Centre. Our partnership with you made us able to make a difference in the lives of homeless youth.

The next few weeks will be extremely difficult for all stakeholders including staff and clients. However, Touchstone Youth Centre will provide quality service up to the last day of service. Any support you can provide us to accomplish this goal would be greatly appreciated. Thank you for all your work and the support you provided us over the past 21 years!

Susette Clunis
Executive Director

In brief, a vital organization helping homeless youth is effectively going out of business.  I don't know the details or causes behind their "current financial state", but my main concern relates to the similarities and the differences between charities and for-profit organizations.  When a for-profit organization fails and closes its doors, the employees suffer, and in general terms their customers / clients are inconvenienced.  Sort of like the old riddle with a pig and a chicken discussing a bacon and egg breakfast, with a for-profit model the clients are involved but the employees are committed.

Sadly, in the case of charities that fail - for whatever reason - the impact is greater and broader. The employees suffer, but their customers / clients suffer even moreso.  And in most cases these clients are the ones who can least afford the loss.  I appreciate this is an simplification (and for example ignores suppliers to for-profits who suffer as well), but the simple fact is this: a safe and supportive space for homeless youth is discontinuing its services.  By any measure that's not good news.

And it begs the question about how to respond.  My response is to ensure that my donations go where they're needed most, that I vote for officials who will seek and support innovative, effective and efficient ways to deliver services to those who need it most, and that I speak out so that others know what's happening in a vital sector that touches us all.