Our CEO Paul Streets joins the debate: is scaling up effective charities the way to solve social issues?
David Ainsworth wrote in Civil Society News this week that “By failing to grow, charities are failing beneficiaries.” His piece highlighted the million dollar question facing a stretched sector – namely how do we find the best that charities offer and ensure that it’s replicated so that everyone has the opportunity to benefit?
You can’t fault David’s call. It would be wrong to keep small charities small just because they’re beautiful.
At a time when organisations up and down the country are repeatedly being asked to do more with less, sharing great ideas and interventions is surely a no-brainer, and for many services where a high degree of standardisation – such as operating advice helplines – is possible, the economy of scale argument works.
But the point David seems to miss is this: for many small and local charities, the way they’re able to help their beneficiaries comes from the fact they are just that, small and local. Our experience with the charities we fund is that they have a unique understanding of the people they help and the context in which they do it. They’ve built trust with local people and have relationships that allow them to offer highly customised, bespoke and specialist support.
[charities] have a unique understanding of the people they help and the context in which they do it
The benefits of being small
As a funder of small and local charities, we’ve seen some of the great things these organisations are doing in their communities. From charities that support victims of domestic violence in Wales to those providing refugee support services in Manchester, these are some of the most successful and innovative organisations in the sector.
you wouldn’t expect a high-class restaurant to scale up without losing the quality
But just like in a commercial setting, you wouldn’t expect a high-class restaurant to scale up without losing the quality it offers its customers. We must acknowledge that increasing the volume of services in a charity may decrease quality, and lead to less satisfactory responses to the needs they’re addressing. If our independent bistros are driven to provide more scalable ‘fast food’, their specialist knowledge will be lost and our communities all the worse for it.
Crucially too, we would lose the additional value small and local charities provide in using local volunteers who, through helping to deliver services, often act as anchors within their community, providing stability and support to other groups. We’ve found small and local charities are uniquely placed to engage directly with those hardest-to-reach, because their independence, history and local connections can foster greater levels of trust than a larger, national organisation could. Local charity leaders have the autonomy to address these problems in their local communities as they see them whereas even the most dynamic of managers in national charities are constrained by pressures from the centre.
The role and rootedness of smaller charities in communities means these charities can also build and nurture social networks, creating positive relationships between people living and working around them. In doing this they have the power to boost levels of social capital building links between the people they serve, other communities and even the government to the benefit of the local area.
Some charities try to achieve the best of both worlds by operating as small charities under a bigger national umbrella. Mind and Emmaus are two who take a more federalist approach with individual groups in local communities operating as independent organisations affiliated to a national charity. At Lloyds Bank Foundation we fund some of these organisations and see their success. But as a model, it’s not right for every small charity.
Sharing what works
We need to learn from charities’ success where we can certainly, but that doesn’t mean expecting them to change how they work and who they serve. Why should a charity from Salford aspire to be a provider in Southend? Would they even be as effective?
Studies have shown that it is the most disadvantaged who are often failed by one-size fits-all contract driven approaches to service delivery and that these groups can be better supported by a responsive and adaptive local system delivered by a small, local charity that allows a more proactive or person-centred approach to meet their specific needs.
we should be encouraging the sector to do more to learn core lessons
There are ways to take these local success stories and reach more people and we should be encouraging the sector to do more to learn core lessons and adapt them to work in their own areas. Better evaluation and measurement can offer insights that other charities can learn from and apply in a way that best suits them whilst avoiding a cookie cutter model of replication that we know won’t work.
What we can do
Here at the Foundation, we, like many other funders, have worked to bring charities addressing the same issues together. Allowing similar charities to meet through seminars, forums or taking part in learning sets can help them to share their successes and learn new approaches they can apply to their own communities. We know this is something that works but we know we can and should do more.
As David said, we need to be serious about taking the best ideas in the sector and sharing them if we’re going to tackle the challenges that face us as a country. His response to this has attracted much debate and rightly so. But before insisting on scaling up, we need to ask what this means, and ultimately what it adds, because, as we have found, when it comes to charities bigger is not always best.