Disability charities to merge to be large advocacy provider

Two disability charities are ­merging to become one of the biggest ­advocacy ­providers. Vern Pitt spoke to the men behind the new set-up

Tough economic times may be signalling the dawn of the super-charity. Age Concern and Help the Aged merged last year to become the nation’s biggest older people’s charity; and on 1 April, disabled people’s advocacy charities Speaking Up and Advocacy Partners will also merge to form one of the advocacy sector’s biggest providers.

“When it became clear that the economic future might not be so rosy we both felt that our missions would gain by coming together,” says Craig Dearden-Phillips, chair of the merged charity and founder of Speaking Up. He says there was already a lot of synergy between the two organisations but the economic crisis made merger a timely decision. It’s a view reflected by chief executive and former head of Advocacy Partners Jonathan Senker, who says: “The effect of spending cuts can be felt the hardest on those that have the most to lose and we have a role in helping people to speak up.”

Speaking to both men it’s clear it was not a move born of desperation but ambition. “We want to lead the advocacy sector,” says Dearden-Phillips. “We think it’s a sector that needs strong organisations setting the pace.”

Central to that is an emphasis on delivering good-quality services, says Senker, something they both feel will be strengthened by the merger. Dearden-Phillips says all their advocacy staff are on their way to attaining the diploma in independent mental capacity advocacy introduced last year. “Advocacy has often lagged behind the other professions,” he says, “We’ve got some structures as a sector which are helpful but we need to go to the next stage.”

That next level involves demonstrating value to local authorities. Senker says that, as one of the largest providers in the sector, it must show an evidence base of successes that will be more robust than before. He says he knows that advocacy can make a difference to people’s lives, but convincing others requires hard numbers which a larger organisation is better placed to provide.

This improved evidence base is key to influencing practice in the interests of service users. “We believe that we have an obligation, where we are aware of common issues in people’s lives and ways to solve them, to act as an effective transmitter of good practice,” says Senker.

They want to influence policy too. “We aspire to have a huge influence on the personalisation agenda because advocacy is set to be very important within that,” says Dearden-Phillips. He believes that the growing number of disabled people controlling their own budgets will result in better care for them. Some will need support and the new charity plans to deliver that by expanding into brokerage work, to help individuals navigate the care system. Dearden-Phillips says he also want to create new services in the “grey zone” where advocacy overlaps with brokerage. “We want to develop something in that market,” he says. “There seems to be a demand for those kinds of services.”

different strengths

Financial security plays a role in making these experiments possible but Senker says the charities’ different strengths complement each other. He expects to be able to learn from Speaking Up’s greater experience with mental health clients, while he feels Advocacy Partners brings a history of projects that address personalisation issues.

They may yet lose a little of that expertise. Rationalising the charity’s back office provision may result in job losses, but no decision has been made yet. The leadership issue, however, was handled smoothly. Dearden-Phillips says it was right for Senker to become chief executive because of his longer-term commitment to the charity. Dearden-Phillips says he may only stay for a couple of years.

What will not be such an easy decision, however, is naming the new charity. At present it holds the unwieldy title of Advocacy Partners Speaking Up. They plan to ask staff to forward suggestions from which to make a decision. Senker will not be drawn on his suggestion but Dearden-Phillips will be nominating Total Voice. However, with more than 200 staff to agree on a name, this element of the merger may yet prove the most tricky.


Fact files

Speaking Up

Founded: 1998

Staff: 130

Annual turnover: £5m

Services: One-to-one support, advice on personal budgets, service user political groups, specialist projects and work based learning.

Advocacy Partners

Founded: 1981

Staff: 85

Annual turnover: £3m

Services: Professional advocacy, statutory advocacy, mental capacity advocacy, brokerage support and user participation support.

This article is published in the 11 March issue of Community Care magazine under the heading Advocates for super-charities

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