To make impact charities must stay true to local roots

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?

Sajid Javid MP stands by Jackie Hooper, of small charity North Worcestershire Basement Projects at our Parliamentary Reception.

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.

Bath City Farm – local charity embedded in the community it serves.

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?

Our recent Small Vital and Vocal Charity Summit

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.


One thought on “To make impact charities must stay true to local roots

  1. Hi Paul. Thank you very much for your considered response.

    I do not debate anything whatsoever about the value of small charities and the power of their networks, which you so eloquently express. It is unquestionable that community infrastructure is a rich thing which takes time to grow and cannot be picked up and replicated elsewhere. I do not believe that we need less small charities.

    So I think I must plead not guilty to the charge of missing that “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”.

    I do not think that all charities should try to grow. Not even most. Most small charities are community infrastructure organisations – our fairly basic study of the Commission register suggests 80 per cent. I do not think we should ask guides groups, choirs or WIs to focus on growth.

    However we have also to accept that there is another side to this story. Small charities only deliver services to a small number of people. There are a large number of people who need help. Small charities also exist disproportionately in rich areas. The greatest need is in poor areas. So it may be that the services so excellently provided do not uniformly reach those in most need. There is a waiting list for the guides, and they are recruiting loads of volunteers as a result.

    But I am not really talking about that either. I am saying that I have encountered many, many examples of charities delivering excellent initiatives and programmes, in all sorts of areas, which are not extended to apply to all those who could usefully benefit from them. And that is a shame.

    I am talking not primarily about scaling up organisations, but scaling up ideas.

    Sometimes, if you grew your service, it would be less effective. Of course, sometimes a less effective service delivered to many more people might still be the right thing to do.

    But sometimes if you grow your service, it might actually be more effective. You gain economies of scale, contracting with government is easier, and you are better known.

    Sometimes growing your service is not the right answer. The right answer may be passing on the learning, or getting government to do it.

    I am slightly suspicious of this. I tend to believe that things are only really done correctly if the people who are already experts take on the work themselves. But there will be many occasions when replication, not scale, really is the best solution. Several people have taken it on themselves to explain to me eloquently the problems with scale and the benefits of replication. The arguments are strong.

    It always varies. For most, growth is not the right thing at all. For many where it would the right thing, the practical barriers prevent it.

    The key thing is that it must be stewarded. In many other fields, the market takes care of people’s needs. The laws of supply and demand mean that good ideas replicate, and bad ones stumble.

    But charities operate in areas where markets fail. There is no mechanism intrinsic in the sector to encourage charities with useful interventions to grow. What feedback loops there are focus on donors and funders, not on beneficiaries, and so much of what does grow is not what is needed. Funders in particular are too focused on the novel and entertaining, and not enough on what is evidenced and proven.

    So it falls on us to do all we can to encourage the growth of good ideas. LBFEW is clearly trying some things to encourage that growth. Good. But I submit respectfully that rather than primarily celebrating what is being done, we must be ambitious to achieve more.

    I am conscious that I am a commentator, not at the coal face, and that charities are sick to death of people who do nothing themselves, saying charities must do better. But it is my job to start conversations, and this is an area where I do not think the discussion is really up and running.

    Rather than debating whether good ideas need to grow, can we talk about how to grow them?


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