Are big charities ruining it for the rest of us – 5 things we need to consider?

Let me get things straight to begin with I am not sizest. But I do have a feeling that there are some issues that need to be addressed in the voluntary and community sector. dont worry2015 has seen the level in trust of charities drop (see here), there have been increases in the number of bad press stories about charities and government ministers have been keen to join in the general sport of charity bashing (see here). This I believe is not caused by the work of small voluntary and community groups of the type we at CCVS have the privilege of working with. Our members almost exclusively have an income below half a million pounds and the majority have incomes below £50,000. So here are my 5 key issues.

  1.  Fundraising problems – A lot has been written about bad fundraising practice some of it justified and some copy to sell papers. This was caused by big charities; this was not the work of small local organisations. As a result of the bad practice a lot of the big charities are getting together to make up some new rules to show how responsible they are – shutting the door after the horse has bolted, left the country and started a new life. Can I say we do not want this, it will hurt small organisations and it is not our problem. If charities have misbehaved remove their registration; if individuals have misbehaved sack them or send them to jail if appropriate. DO NOT set up some commission to appease government that will make little or no difference to anyone with the budget to get around it, but will have disproportionate impacts on small organisations.
  2.  Fat cat salaries – there are continued calls for the six figure sums paid to the CEOs of some charities to be cut (see here). Whilst I do not agree with this it is not a problem for any of our members (and if it is I need to know as we will be putting up their membership charge). I don’t think that anyone would say we are overpaying any of our staff, in fact I know many in the sector who work more hours than they are paid and who earn below the average wage of £26,500. I think we should be writing stories and campaigning to ensure that salaries go up and people are paid for all the hours they work, and not worrying about the fact that a few people get paid a good salary for what I imagine is a very difficult job.
  3.  Good cause fatigue – Is it the big charities, government or wider society that has reduced people’s ability to recognise the suffering of others. It needs to stop. No more shock adverts from charities, no more development porn, no more depicting those who are living with inequalities in wealth, health or anything else as simply recipients of charity who need to be rescued (see here). Most of our members work with people to improve lives, improve opportunities or improve communities. This is what creates real and sustainable change not another initiative parachuted in. We need local solutions to local problems not initiatives, programmes and strategies.
  4.  The slice of the pie – According to NCVO the total income for the sector in 2012-13 was £40.5 billion. They also say there are just over 160,000 voluntary organisations, so that means we each get a bit more than £250K each – I wish. If you look at the income for the 10 largest charities (http://charities.findthecompany.co.uk/) then that amounts to around £6 Billion or 15% of the total. What I am getting at here is that there is a world of difference between the big (and sometimes well-known) charities and the many hundreds of small local groups and organisations. Research (see here) shows that smaller organisations have been disproportionately hit by the recession; we do not need anything to be put in place to make it worse. We need to find ways to ensure that smaller organisations get a bigger share and are able to continue to deliver services.
  5.  We are not all Kids Company – If the bulk of our members all misappropriated all the money they receive from local and national government I doubt it would reach £40 million. If one more person mentions Kids Company to me in a discussion about the sector and what needs to change I will not be responsible for my actions. I do not know what happened at Kids Company, there may have been issues. I am pretty sure however that none of our members have undue influence with government ministers or have received unofficial handouts without going through rigorous funding processes. (If any of you have please let me know as I want in!) Do not tar us all with this brush and read this article for a much more in depth argument about why we are not all Kids Company.

No organisation is perfect and we all make mistakes. That said I do believe that small organisations are working miracles in their local communities. In the face of falling funding, raising need, growing inequality and increased scrutiny voluntary and community groups are the glue that binds community together. I know a lot of big organisations do great work, but I am a champion for the small and micro. There is room for all of us under the wide umbrella of civil society, but too often the small and micro are forgotten, unheard and marginalised. This has to change and small and micro organisations need to be nurtured, loved and supported.

So to take away from all this.

  • Small is good but so is big – mostly.
  • What works for the big may not work for the small.
  • Local solutions for local people are what sustainability is all about.
  • Do not over react and create rules and structures that cause more harm than good.
  • Get your act together because you actions affect more than just your organisation. Trust in the sector is important especially to small organisations so don’t mess it up for us.
  • Find a way to redistribute the wealth to small and local organisations – we are the 99%
  • Deputy CEOs of small voluntary organisations should all be paid a six figure salary (not including pennies) and should be given millions of pounds for their organisation to prove they can use them responsibly.
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