Why small charities matter to us all

I’m a Londoner. I’ve lived here nearly all my life. I find everything about London fascinating and compelling. Its history, its formidable arts and culture, its opportunities, its ceaseless change and renewal. My home is barely a stone’s throw from the Thames, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

But like all who live here, I’m acutely aware that London is, if not divided, at least greatly unequal. In many ways, children growing up here have more chances than anywhere in the country. They have the privilege of a world of opportunity on their doorstep in a way that simply isn’t the case elsewhere. But for some of these children, the single mile between their home and the world’s most dynamic and powerful companies and institutions may as well be a thousand miles.

Why am I telling you this? Because today marks the start of Small Charity Week, and it’s given me cause to reflect on all that’s best about small charities. One of my very favourite small charities is the Guy Fox Project. The eponymous Guy Fox is not a typical charity founder, if there is such a thing. He is not a pioneering social leader, not a medic, not a conservationist, not someone affected by a particular illness. He is a cartoon fox.

On a shoestring budget, this charity’s volunteers set out to break down the barriers that separate some of the most disadvantaged children in the capital and the opportunities that could be theirs. They are best known for their books helping children explore the city they live in. The aforementioned Guy Fox fronts a child-friendly map of London, he explains the history of Big Ben, of the Great Fire of London, and of institutions like the Bank of England and Lloyds of London. With financial support from City firms, Guy Fox has helped children understand how the legal system works, how insurance works, how the economy works. Through their volunteers in schools, the charity opens the eyes of local children to careers they’d scarcely have known existed.

The Guy Fox Project exemplifies everything I see in the best small charities. Inspired ideas, making connections, tenacious trustees determined to find every penny they can and put it to the best possible use. And moreover, an ethos of inclusion and a relentless commitment to playing their part in making the world a better place.

NCVO supports small charities every day

NCVO’s 13,500+ members are spread across the country and across the spectrum of income in almost the same proportions as the sector as a whole, meaning nine in ten of our members are small charities such as the Guy Fox Project. And NCVO membership is not a level playing field for all charities. Rather, our membership fee structure is deliberately designed so that large charities pay more. This is so we can charge less to small charities, or nothing at all for the very smallest.

Why? Because we know the challenges small charities face. We know that when you are squeezing the running of a charity around a full-time job, you need quick access to authoritative resources. We know that when you are just getting started, you need extra help. And we believe that this guidance, these pointers in the right direction can make all the difference and help those who want to grow.

But it’s also because of something bigger. We know that to support the smallest charities is to support the whole sector. Without the thousands of small charities, the rest of the sector would be so much poorer, and our country incalculably so.

Stronger together

I’m always delighted to see examples of NCVO’s larger members working hand-in-hand with their smaller counterparts. Take the Royal British Legion for example. Every year, the Legion gives millions in grants to small charities. And not only for service provision – such as to small charities providing support for service families or helping ex-service personnel start their own businesses – but also for capacity building for small forces charities.

Why does the Legion do this? Because they know that many of these small charities have reach and expertise that they can’t replicate, and their interest is in what’s best for their people they work for – strengthening the organisations that work for them. The Legion benefits from learning from these small charities, whether as grantees or as partners in campaigning work.

This is a perfect example of how the success of all charities is bound together. The sector is an ecosystem, and our organisations are in symbiotic relationships with one another. No matter the size or type of your charity, you are stronger when you work with and support others. And we are all stronger when we nurture all parts of this ecosystem. Small charities in particular are the foundation on which everything else grows. We all have a responsibility to make sure we support them.

We have a role as NCVO. Large charities have a role. And I believe the government has a role, too. To truly nurture small charities, it must ensure that its funding and regulation don’t disadvantage them, as we’ve too often seen. To take one example, NCVO has been making the case for simpler funding mechanisms. Grants are often the simplest and the most efficient for all parties. Such arrangements benefit all charities, but smaller charities in particular, who may have the expertise to deliver an outstanding service but not the capital necessary to enter complex contracting arrangements with lengthy payment schedules.

A moment to celebrate

We need small charities, and we need them to thrive. I know that conditions have not been easy for some small charities lately. We’ve previously looked at this in some depth with the Lloyds Bank Foundation.

But I know that spinning plates is second nature to many small charity trustees, and that many small organisations are thriving, doing what they do best and inspiring admiration all around. This week is a week of celebrating small charities, of focusing on all the very many positives, and I am delighted that NCVO can take part in that.

To mark the week, we have made a number of our member-only resources that are particularly popular with small charities free for all to use. We have also arranged free consultations for small charities with our experts in governance, volunteer management and impact and evaluation for the week’s ‘Big Advice Day’ on Tuesday. There are links to all this and more on our Small Charity Week page.

I would like to thank The FSI for their work creating this event, and I look forward to many successful Small Charity Weeks to come.

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Avatar photo Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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