Big charities are spoiling things for us small ones

Stories abound in the press about charities. Many are critical. The stories I find most memorable are those focused on financial scandals, governance or data failings and where the high profile casualties don’t do much to change the tone of the conversation. Perhaps they’re memorable because they make me so angry.

Yesterday I read headlines about Help For Heroes and alleged data mishandling (denied by the charity). Today I’ve read a rangy opinion piece in the FT about charities and how a Whitehall insider ‘agrees’ they are ‘murky’. And of course, the coverage of Kids Company continues, including the BBC documentary aired last week.

Of course I know that ‘Charity Does A Good Job’ and ‘No Governance Concerns At Charity’ are not juicy headlines, but what I take from all of this is that it seems that most people writing (and reading?) about charities don’t actually know much about charities, about the reality of running a charity, working in a charity, or receiving services or support from a charity.

As Chief Exec of a local charity, I spend the majority of my time balancing governance, strategic direction, financial management, relationship management (a LOT of relationship management), understanding policy changes (including the devastating implications of local public sector budget cuts), and ensuring that the work we do is of high quality.

As a charity which turns over just over half a million this is a challenge. But we are rightly held to high standards, and we all embrace that. But it has to be proportional. We support hundreds of people both directly and through our hundreds of volunteers – and we do it well and we do it safely. Because we are local, we know what people want and need, and we’re in a position to give it.

However, my experience is that we are held to higher standards than our public sector funders themselves. We are also beholden to their timescales, we are subject to the whims of any given decision-making body who may not feel like deciding on matters that are critical to us and the people we support – mostly due to small p political manoeuvring.

We are working hard to move away from a situation where we are wedged in like this, and that means raising more money in donations, legacies and sponsorship. Telling our stories and asking for support. This is hard when the prevailing media noise is negative, and when it tars all charities with the same brush.

We have about as much in common with AgeUK national (£174.6m 2014), Kids Company (£15.7m 2013), or Help For Heroes (£28.9m 2014) as we do with other businesses that turn over that amount of money each year. We have more in common with the local cafe that values its staff and customers, that buys from local producers and takes pride in the quality of its food. We have the same struggles and have the same trouble getting our voices heard.

The FT did get one thing right in its opinion piece about charities. The statement from Bernard Jenkins that “It is the role of trustees, not the regulator, to ensure that a charity is well run.” is spot on.

A significant part of my job  is to make sure that I have the right skills on the Board of Trustees, that they understand their legal obligations, that they have induction, training and access to networks that help them grow in that role. I work hard to create a culture of openness in the organisation from top to bottom, accepting constructive challenge and striving to always do better.

In my experience, the majority of small, especially local or community charities do this every single day. You just don’t hear about it.


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