Policy, campaigns & research

Size isn't everything for our sector - success can come in small packages

It is assumed that success among charities is measured by size and growth but should that really be the case, asks Debra Allcock Tyler

I made the fatal mistake of weighing myself on 1 January. I have done some foolish things in my life but doing that takes the biscuit … which is of course what I have literally been doing all over Christmas.

So I begin the year needing to shed the excess. Don’t get me wrong, I’m an older woman now and I don’t expect to have the figure I had in my twenties. When buying lingerie, I’m now thinking of asking for underwired knickers alongside the underwired bra! But carrying extra pounds simply isn’t healthy for me. I find I’m out of breath more easily, my joints ache a bit more than they should, my blood pressure is a bit high … all familiar issues when one is carrying too much weight.

Which brings me to the issue of heavy charities. There are some generally accepted assumptions in our sector that spring to mind. One is that success is measured by size and growth. If you’re big, you’re presumed to be successful and more stable; and if you’re growing, you’re doing a good job.

Related to this idea of safety in size is that merger is the panacea of all ills. Coming together and thus getting bigger makes you less vulnerable.

Or does it? Most of the media ire in 2015 was directed at larger charities – charities that, partly as a function of their size, find themselves doing things on a bigger scale, whether that’s fundraising or chief executive pay. For perfectly understandable reasons, such charities are also spending a sizeable proportion of charitable funds on back-office services, or slightly better office environments (often because of employment law or health and safety – rarely because they’re actually profligate). All of which brings them under attack.

Smaller charities don’t have that problem. Further, if an important metric for your success as a charity is revenue, it’s too easy for the primary focus to be about income rather than impact. Ergo, the drive to bring in more money becomes a self-perpetuating exercise. I suspect that might lie at the root of some of the fundraising issues faced by our larger charities last summer.

There is a body of evidence that the optimum organisational size is about 120 people. Clearly, that simply isn’t realistic for some organisations. But there is something to be said for getting smaller. There is little doubt that being large can slow you down and make it harder to be fleet of foot and flexible.

I’m not saying larger charities carry a lot of excess weight by their very nature – because, for the most part, I don’t think they do. However, I suspect some of them might be large because they are trying to do too many things. I think there is something to be gained by getting smaller (if that’s not an oxymoron) – allowing some parts of your service to become independent so that they can flex and adapt and find new ways of meeting need. You’re then left a bit lighter and find it easier to breathe.

So why not consider going against the prevailing winds – neither merging nor growing, but doing the opposite of growing. Being smaller might help you withstand the necessity for heavy-duty underwiring just a little longer.

This article first appeared in the February 2016 edition of Third Sector Magazine.