Duncan Fisher: ‘The charity structure does not deliver’

Duncan Fisher: ‘The charity structure does not deliver’
Tristan Donovan, Third Sector

Duncan Fisher already has two charities to his name. In 1994 he co-founded Action for Conservation Through Tourism, now the Travel Foundation, which funds community projects in tourist destinations. Five years later he co-founded the Fatherhood Institute, a think tank that encourages family policy to pay more attention to fathers.

Today he heads Kids in the Middle, a community interest company that helps children who are experiencing conflict in their families and is guided by a coalition of 30 children and family organisations, and the social enterprise Dad Info, which produces information leaflets for maternity services about becoming and being a father.

Fisher says his move from charities to social enterprise is deliberate. And permanent. "I’m one of many charity chief executives who have left charities for this, and I won’t go back," he says.

The problem, he believes, is that the charity model is broken, poorly designed to cope with challenges such as the government spending cuts that he thinks will alter the relations between the state and voluntary sector for good. "There’s going to be no grants; it’s that brutal," he says. "I predict a crisis for the funding of all kinds of services at every level and a shift to social enterprise and self-help. We need to work out how to do it without grants. Services that don’t fund themselves – they’ll stop."

The reliance on voluntary trustees, he says, makes it harder for charities to cope with this shift. "I don’t think the charity structure delivers," he says. "Businesses are run by people who are good at running businesses. They are run by chief executives who are like aeroplane pilots – they need to be able to react quickly when they encounter turbulence.

"But trustees are technically in charge of charities, and each chief executive is their employee. It’s like the pilot of a plane in trouble having to leave the cockpit to ask passengers what he or she should do. Either that, or hoodwink them into doing what he or she believes is right."

Fisher now sees community interest companies as superior vehicles for doing good. "I’m a big fan of CICs – they are structured like businesses," he says. "The social enterprise model is the way we have to go. You have to sell things to some people to provide free things to others."

He is trying to put this vision into practice through Dad Info. It provides free information leaflets for maternity services that cater for both parents. "Everything else in maternity services is for mums only," he says. To pay for this, Fisher has written a book for new parents called Baby’s Here! Who Does What?, published by Dad Info. The hope is that book sales will fund the leaflets. "We’re trying to provide a universal service by selling something to a small percentage of people," he says. "It’s a better model than grants – it’s sustainable and it’s got to be popular if it is to work. If you’re grant-funded, your primary allegiance is ultimately to those who funded you; but if parents finance it, that allegiance will be to them."

Kids in the Middle is also trying to break the mould. The coalition of charities that support it sets the goals, but the company is left to achieve those goals however its sees fit. "We don’t mix the business management with the social sector politics," Fisher says. "In classic charities that’s all mixed up."

Asked whether the shift he expects will be positive or negative, he is ambivalent. "The advantage is that services will become more efficient and focus on clients rather than funders," he says. "But we will get an increase in the exclusion of certain groups: it doesn’t pay to cater to some, and that’s where government should come in."

But it makes little difference what he thinks about the transition he predicts, says Fisher. "We are where we are," he says. "I’m just trying to sort out my part of the jigsaw. The key for me is that the person driving the organisation forward has to be an executive director. That is how it works in the rest of life and that should also be the case for the not-for-profit sector."