So you’ve just won the lottery. Gone on that luxury cruise to Monaco, bought a car with a name you can’t pronounce, eaten caviar for breakfast every day even though you don’t like it. Now you’re feeling generous. You think you might donate to that small, community-based organisation down the road from your new, £3 million penthouse - but you’re just not sure.
Well, I think you should go for it. Seriously, I do.
Because big charities are great, but the small has a lot to offer too.
For one thing, neighbourhood operations tend to be more approachable. They’re a recognisable part of the community, and are often staffed by locals themselves.1 Their size creates a family-like environment where people feel safe and unintimidated2, and they’re not associated with government either.3
But accessibility isn’t their greatest advantage. No, what really sets small institutions apart is the fact that they’re good at relationships. Where larger establishments are often forced by contractual requirements to focus on scale and ‘throughput’ rather than people4, local ones can often give more time to those who use their services. Kate West is the co-director of ‘Family Voice’, a Sheffield-based CIC that empowers families in the Sharrow and Nether Edge community. Earlier this year, I was lucky enough to speak to her about the importance of these good relationships with clients.
“Over lockdown, what everyone needs is emotional support. The effect of that is going to depend on trust, and on the connection you have with the person giving you the emotional support. If you expand too much, you lose those relationships.
Everyone’s situation is very complex. It can be hard for them to understand us and where we’re coming from. We need to spend time with people in order to get to know each other and, in doing so, help them efficiently and effectively.”
Kate’s organisation was created because many women in the local area were not accessing the support that they needed to lead fulfilling lives. The relationships established by the organisation’s accessibility, and reinforced by its dedication to spending time with people, mean that these women feel able to share their personal situations and needs. As a result, difficult circumstances can now be recognised, and resolved.
Without the bureaucracy and politics of larger operations, Family Voice can be flexible. Like many local not-for-profits, they meet needs as they arise, no matter what they are, with a DIY attitude that would do B&Q proud.5 In contrast, bigger establishments often signpost people to other charities if the issue doesn’t ‘fit neatly’ into their usual services.6 This, however, can prove problematic. “When you say to someone, ‘Oh, here’s a number, give them a call’, they’re unlikely to do it. Even if they do, the person on the other end of the phone might not always make their service accessible - due to language issues, for example. So we tend to deal with things ourselves.” Similarly, national charities often tackle things like language support with a generic, ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. Though this is often perceived as more cost-effective, it’s actually less efficient.7 It means they don’t address different individuals’ complex needs, sometimes resulting in situations simply not being resolved.8
Nevertheless, these bigger establishments do have some advantages. For example, they can have significant influence on policy-makers9 - indeed, in the past, they have successfully campaigned for legislative changes like the criminalisation of so-called ‘revenge porn’ threats.10 Their national media presence enables them to quickly raise consciousness of an issue, and they are better equipped to deal with dramatic, large-scale crises like natural disasters.11
But when it comes to improving the day-to-day lives of those in need, local organisations do have an edge. And let no-one tell you that their size makes their impact negligible. Over the course of this past year, despite lockdown and the pressures of increased need, Family Voice has been able to support 200 families with weekly ‘catch-up’ calls, language learning support, safe spaces for children to play outside, and more. And they’ve achieved all this while being funded for 1.5 staff. Yes, that is your cue to choke on a mouthful of tea. You’re welcome.
Yet at the moment, these establishments are being increasingly neglected. Small NPOs struggle to meet the minimum turnover and insurance requirements needed to attain government contracts12, and the current financial crisis is not helping the situation either.13 So now, more than ever before, it’s time to start looking out for local not-for-profits. It’s time to donate, it’s time to volunteer, it’s time to spread the word.
For once, it’s time to support the small.
Naomi Thomas was a senior runner-up in the 2020 Orwell Youth Prize, with her piece 'The Michelin Woman', and is currently an Orwell Youth Prize Fellow.
- Lake, 2015
- Lloyds Bank Foundation et al., 2018, p.16
- Lloyds Bank Foundation et al., 2018, p.19
- Lloyds Bank Foundation et al., 2018, p.19
- Anonymous, 2015
- Lloyds Bank Foundation et al., 2018, p.15
- Cox and Hunter, p.13
- Locality, n.d., p.4
- Cox and Hunter, p.24-26
Brindle, David. “Small charities miss out on donations because public unaware of them.” The Guardian, 13 June 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/voluntary-sector-network/2016/jun/13/small-charities-miss-donations-public-unaware. Accessed 5 January 2022.
Cox, Ed, and Jack Hunter. Too Small To Fail. February 2016. IPPR, Institute for Public Policy Research, https://www.ippr.org/files/publications/pdf/too-small-to-fail_Feb-2015.pdf. Accessed 11 August 2021.
GivingForce. “Big vs Small - What Charity Should Your Business Support?” GivingForce, 23 May 2018, https://www.givingforce.com/big-vs-small-what-charity-should-your-business-support/. Accessed 18 August 2021.
Lynch, Paul. “Covid: Small charities face 'slow death.'” BBC News, 6 November 2020, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-54754902. Accessed 11 August 2021.
Packer, Helen. “Charities on the 'cliff edge': the third sector in 2021.” fundraising.co.uk, 5 January 2021, https://fundraising.co.uk/2021/01/05/charities-on-the-cliff-edge-the-third-sector-in-2021/. Accessed 11 August 2021.
Refuge. “Refuge responds to Ministry of Justice announcement to make threatening to share intimate images a crime.” Refuge, 1 March 2021, https://www.refuge.org.uk/refuge-responds-to-ministry-of-justice-announcement-to-make-threatening-to-share-intimate-images-a-crime/. Accessed 23 August 2021.
Reynolds, Amie McWilliam. “What new research tells us about the impact of COVID-19 on charities - Charity Commission.” Charity Commission, 28 October 2021, https://charitycommission.blog.gov.uk/2021/10/28/what-new-research-tells-us-about-the-impact-of-covid-19-on-charities/. Accessed 8 January 2022.