Small Charity Week

Given it is Small Charity Week (19-23 June), I thought I would sing the praises of these amazing organisations and especially the people who run them. I asked a recently appointed small charity CEO based in Surrey what she had learned so far in the job. Her reply? “You have to be a jack of all trades and willing to do the jobs that no one else will do.” I agree. I found the same when I first started – whether that be creating an Excel spreadsheet, washing up the mugs after board meetings or setting the alarm on the building. If there is no one else willing or able to do it, the buck stops with the CEO/general manager (or whatever other title they may have).

First, perhaps, it is best to define small charities. I see that according to the organisers of Small Charity Week, the definition is charities with a turnover of less than £1m. To me that seems particularly high. There is a massive difference between a charity that turns over £900k and one that turns over £200k.

It might be useful to think about it in terms of the evolution of development of a charity. Really small charities typically don’t have a fundraiser – the fundraising is done by the founder(s) in the first instance, sometimes morphing to the CEO if the founder(s) step back. During this period, charities are often underfunded, predominantly volunteers and/or underpaid staff, driven by a passion. They have usually been created because there is an unfilled need, often one that has been experienced by the founder’s family themselves, or they have seen in their neighbourhood. For this reason, these very small charities have a unique place in our society. They are providing much needed support, often at a time of particular difficulty in a person or family’s life.

A frustration I often hear expressed is that there are too many charities and they should merge. Whilst this is sometimes true, we also need to be careful about thinking that bigger is always better.  These very small charities often deliver amazing value at much lower cost than public services or larger charities. This value comes from goodwill and people’s willingness to pitch in – value which can sometimes be harder to maintain in larger organisations.

The point at which a charity takes on a professional fundraiser, is typically a significant transition at which point the charity has become more stable and is able to appeal to a much wider base of funders. However, this can also be the point at which people’s motivations start to change.

The charity sector is often seen as ‘unprofessional’ or somehow less knowledgeable than the public or private sectors. However, charity CEOs have all the same challenges as running a business, plus a range of other issues on top – more complicated stakeholder arrangements – having to satisfy funders, beneficiaries and trustee boards, who often have a much more diverse set of opinions than private sector clients. Often, you can’t turn down clients or parts of a market like the private sector can. You generally have to motivate people on less money and don’t have the same routes out if you make a bad hire. There’s plenty more that I could add to this, but I’ll cut it short and say that most CEOs of charities that I know could easily run a similar business. But they choose not to, because they are passionate about making the world a better place.

So a big shout out and thanks to small charities, especially the really small ones. You are making the world a better place – but please just make sure you look after yourself as well.

– Cate Newnes-Smith

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