The small charity juggling trick

Two reports about the state of the UK voluntary sector were published last month which, refreshingly, both focussed on the smaller end of the charity market. The Select Committee on Charities, appointed to consider ‘issues related to sustaining the charity sector and the challenges of charity governance, published Stronger charities for a stronger society, and the Lloyds Bank Foundation published Facing Forward, looking at how charities with an annual income of up to £1m can adapt to survive.

Unlike some of the other noise coming out of Parliament, the Select Committee report was framed throughout by the positive contributions of charity to society. The Committee wisely chose from the outset to focus primarily on the interests of small and medium sized charities, and the following is just a flavour of some of the 100 conclusions and recommendations:

  • Charities cannot operate unless their core costs are met, so there should be an expectation that realistic and justifiable core costs are included in contracts
  • Considerations around partnerships and mergers does not stop the Committee making clear that it would not want to discourage people from establishing new charities
  • There are grave concerns about the Charity Commission proceeding with any proposal to charge charities, and a consciousness of concerns that the voluntary levy to fund the Fundraising Regulator may be disproportionately burdensome for small and medium charities
  • For once the B word doesn’t dominate, but there is a recommendation for the Office for Civil Society to undertake an audit of the potential impact of Brexit on charities.

The Lloyds Foundation report reached some predictable (and reasonable) recommendations relating to government (use appropriate commissioning processes when securing public services) and funders (fund to build capacity and effectiveness rather than constantly seeking innovation), but the message to larger charities was of particular interest. It felt like a slapping down:

  • Larger charities must seek to collaborate with small charities rather than compete against them for public service contracts
  • ‘We need meaningful partnerships across charities of different sizes and to move away from larger ones exploiting unfair competitive advantages that prevent smaller charities from competing fairly’
  • Larger charities should focus on a better sector and society in the long-term, not just their own size and market share.

Having spent much of the last seven months running a small charity, this focus on issues faced by smaller organisations, and their relationship with larger ones, is particularly welcomed. More than half of the UK’s 155,000 charities have an annual income of between £10k and £1m, but most discussion is focussed on the 1% which bring in more than £10m a year – the narrative has been dominated by concerns of, and about, the Tescos and Man Utds of the sector, with little concern for the struggling corner shops and Leyton Orient.  (It is to be hoped that the Baring Foundation co-ordinated Inquiry into the future of civil society, which launched last week, also focusses on the 99%).

The Select Committee report rehashes a wonderful old description of running a small charity – it’s like juggling on a unicycle. My own recent experience as Interim CEO included a ‘to do’ list which at one point included ‘Prepare for speech with Minister’, followed by ‘Chase up toilet cleaning’. Running a multi-million pound charity isn’t easy, but, unlike at smaller organisations, at least the person specification doesn’t include Essential Circus Skills.

Fiveways works with charities that want expert help from people who know the sector well. If you think we may be able to help, please get in touch. We’ll bring the juggling balls.