I was asked to write about how important small charities are for small charities week. And of course, it’s tempting to talk about connections to the local community, reaching the parts others can’t, greater understanding of local issues etc etc. All of this is true – but it also fails to recognise the star quality of those who lead and work in small charities.
Leadership of any size of charity is hard and stressful, although ultimately rewarding. But in my 38 years of experience in the charitable sector, the most incredibly talented, awesome leaders are often to be found leading small charities. And yet they are so often overlooked, patronised and assumed not to be operating at the highest levels of professionalism (whatever that means!)
When you run a larger organisation you typically have access to all sorts of resources, not just money, but people, who can specialise in certain areas, who have expertise and experience. You have folk who focus on policy who can advise you on how you need to respond to pieces of legislation affecting your cause. You have a finance team who have a detailed understanding of charity accounts. You have a marketing team who are qualified in the latest and best marketing techniques. You have an IT team who sort out the computers and the software. You have a facilities team who manage your buildings and infrastructure support. You have a fundraising team who bring in the money. All important functions that help you to focus on serving others.
Small charities also have to do all of those things. But they don’t have access to the teams that can help them to do it. When you work in a small charity almost all of those things are done by one or two people. On a typical day the CEO of a small charity can find themselves fixing the loo; starting a funding application; re-negotiating the terms of their lease; dealing with a stressed volunteer; finalising their board papers; having a call with a local councillor to discuss changes in local authority policy and ending the working day giving direct support to a beneficiary or service user. Oh – and then finishing off that funding application once the kids are in bed!
The range of skills required in one person, or a tiny team, is huge! And yet those very same organisations are so often the ones who are more likely to struggle to get funding for those essential resources (others might call overheads or core costs).
These same people usually run the most financially efficient and effective organisations. Because money is tight they have to be incredibly clever about how they spend it. They’re less likely to have glossy reports and accounts; more likely to use low quality paper to save money. Their computers are often not the latest version and their software likely to be the minimum level they can afford. Their offices don’t have modern furniture – their chairs are wobbly, their desks are battered. They hold their AGM in the church hall with an ancient tea urn and soggy digestives, not in an upmarket hotel with posh coffee and canapes.
And yet, despite all these challenges they never forget who they are there to serve. Their passion and commitment for their cause is only matched by their incredible knowledge, experience and skills. They cannot afford to be jack of all trades and master of none. They have to be master of all!
I bloody love these people. If I am looking for models of amazing leadership, financial management, people skills, political nous, connection to community and the cause, I’d look to small charity long before I’d look at a big well-resourced one.
And if I was recruiting for a CEO of a large charity I’d definitely put the CEO of a small one right on top of my shortlist! Their skills and experience are unrivalled!
If you’re a small (or not so small) charity, we have lots of free support that we can offer. Take a look here.