March 2022 marked the end of an era, as the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) closed its doors for good. Hundreds of people listened to the voices and experiences of small charities by joining their final celebration event ‘The Power of Small’ or reading their ‘Small and Mighty’ follow-up report.
If you haven’t seen the report yet, it’s well worth a read. There are lots of interesting reflections on the value and future of small charity infrastructure support, as well as an announcement to bring relief to many: SCC’s free HelpDesk and Charity Set Up Tool will continue under the new joint stewardship of the NCVO and FSI.
The question of how the sector secures long-term funding for this type of vital infrastructure support, and how we can get people to value it, still looms large. I was really hoping the report would tackle this head-on, but it doesn’t really say anything new - that’s a disappointment, but a topic for another day.
The report outlines four Small Principles for those working with, funding and supporting small organisations. The first of these is ‘If you support or fund small charities, say so upfront.’ The context is that the small charities surveyed for the final report overwhelmingly said they trusted SCC because it was explicitly set up to support small charities, as well as being a small charity itself. While many organisations offer support and services to small charities as part of a much broader programme, this rarely inspires the same confidence.
This is a really important point, and on reflection something we at Lime Green need to say more clearly on our website and elsewhere. While we don’t work solely with small charities, they were the original reason why we started, and remain the main audience for our consultancy, training and resources.
So in response to Small Principle #1, this blog is about one thing: showing that we're here for small charities.
We could never, and don’t want to, replicate the broad suite of support and services offered by an organisation like SCC. There’s loads we don’t do, in which case we'll always signpost to others. But if you need something that we do provide, I hope you’ll feel able to come to us with confidence. Here’s why:
Our experience is small charity to the core. My entire time as a charity employee and trustee was with charities with a turnover below £1million. As a guide, in the past three years nearly three-quarters of our consultancy clients have been either registered charities or social enterprises below this turnover threshold, often significantly below it.
This small charity experience shapes how we work. I’ve personally felt that frustration when support is unintentionally alienating or irrelevant for small charities. You know, assumptions that you have a marketing budget, a ‘team’ of fundraisers, available reserves. Training that leaves you with plenty of ideas but no clue where or how to start implementing them. This frustration drives our approach - we always strive to be relevant and proportionate for small charities. It's great to get positive feedback about the quality of our work, but I’m equally proud that we’re seen as being friendly, flexible and kind - easy values and cliches to put on paper, but only meaningful when backed up by feedback.
We use expertise as a force for good. The knowledge and skills gained from working with a wide range of organisations can be a double-edged sword. Specialist expertise can solve problems, empower organisations and build confidence - but used incorrectly, it can overcomplicate things, demoralise people, and only serve to make the consultant look clever. We aim to do all of the former and none of the latter - in my experience, that's not as common in our sector as you'd think. While we do sometimes use specialist tools and frameworks (some designed ourselves, some borrowed from the business world), we’ll only do so if they genuinely solve a problem, and if we can explain to an organisation how to keep using them in-house. We strive to create practical content that make sense, and we’re vehemently anti-jargon - if you see us breaking these rules, please call us out!
We create free resources specifically for small charities. Too often, I feel like fundraisers and consultants operate in an echo chamber, endlessly recycling and debating issues that may be interesting but are ultimately irrelevant for small charities, who form the majority of the sector. While we do of course write and talk about topical issues, we do so with the explicit aim of demystifying them and being practically-minded:
We train hundreds of grassroots organisations each year. We work with partners that focus on serving small organisations, including the School for Social Entrepreneurs and various CVSs (Councils for Voluntary Services). We were also an approved trainer for SCC up until their closure. Again, you’ll see that our training feedback reflects our small charity focus - I love that we’re seen as being warm, friendly and approachable, as making groups feel comfortable, structuring content clearly, and giving encouragement to people who are already doing things well.
Working with us costs less if you're a small charity. We offer a guaranteed discount of 10-20% (depending on the service) on our consultancy fees for small registered charities. The work we do with larger organisations helps to subsidise this, as well as generating new learning and resources that we can then use and share more widely.
Thanks to the Small and Mighty report for outlining their four Small Principles for future small charity support. I hope we can rise to the challenge and do our bit.
WHY THE CLOSURE OF THE SMALL CHARITIES COALITION IS A DISASTER FOR OUR SECTOR AND PROOF OF A COLLECTIVE FAIURE BY FUNDERS
When the news that the Small Charities Coalition (SCC) is closing first broke, people expressed a range of emotions: shock, sadness, gratitude for their help, concern for the grassroots charities they support.
This is all justified, but I think there’s been too much resignation (that this is just one of those things that happens) and not nearly enough anger.
I want to explain why this is a disaster - specifically for SCC and the many brilliant charities they support, but more broadly because of what it says about our sector and the lack of support for infrastructure organisations. This is a collective failure by grantmakers, resulting from short-sighted policy and too much ego.
First, a small disclaimer
I’ve been a pro bono trainer for SCC and general supporter of their work since 2015, so I can’t claim to be 100% neutral, although I should emphasise that we've never received any payment from our work with them.
Secondly, I don't have any knowledge of the inner workings of SCC, or exactly what they've done to try to secure funding. I'm sure there will have been things they could have done better or differently - that's the case for all of us - but I don't think that would fundamentally change what I want to say.
Why is infrastructure support so vital for charities?
The vast majority of charities and social enterprises are tiny organisations run by people with lived experience of the issues they’re addressing. I've personally worked with so many brilliant founders who have been full of knowledge and passion, but who haven’t benefitted from professional training or the best education, don’t speak English as a first language, or have little money for professional development.
Inevitably there are times when they need expert support in areas outside their comfort zone - for example finance, fundraising or IT - but they don't have the budget to recruit a specialist staff member, or pay a consultant.
Sometimes they secure ad hoc pro bono support from an expert – frequently a wealthy person in the twilight of their career after spending 40 years making money in the finance and business worlds, often perpetuating the same social issues they now claim to want to solve. For obvious reasons, this isn’t - and shouldn’t be - a solution for everyone.
I’ve seen a few people argue recently that local infrastructure organisations can step up to the plate after SCC closes. Indeed I've come across some truly brilliant local services. Yes their support is excellent, and yes being localised is really valuable, helping to promote collaboration not competition between organisations.
But in my experience, the quality of local support can really vary, and funding for it can suddenly evaporate in the winds of political change. It certainly isn’t available to everyone, everywhere. Economies of scale mean that most local infrastructure organisations can’t offer the same quality and cost-effectiveness as a national organisation. Even if they could, they'll still eventually face the same funding realities as SCC.
So national infrastructure organisations like SCC are vital - but who can we rely on to fund them?
Certainly not this government, which has alternated between being antagonistic and totally disengaged with the charity sector. As austerity has bitten, charities have necessarily become more vocal about the injustice faced by vulnerable people, and this government has worked progressively harder to discredit and demonise charities in response. Think back to how Conservative MPs seized on things like the Olive Cooke scandal.
Not the general public, who realistically will never be engaged with the nuances of how grassroots charities should be supported. Especially not when, following the lead of the government and the right-wing media, most public focus has been on red herrings like how many pence in every pound charities spend on ‘admin’, or how much their CEO is paid.
This means we inevitably rely on grant funding - but funders haven’t stepped up to the plate
You could argue that it shouldn't be their responsibility, but then again, they’ve done it for countless other underfunded, niche and unpopular causes during a decade of austerity.
Funders are ideally placed to understand the value of grassroots charities, and the need to empower them. But astonishingly few have been willing to fund infrastructure organisations – and that’s due to short-sighted policies and too much ego in their decision-making.
People with far more authority than me, including Paul Streets and Jake Hayman, have long criticised funders’ obsession with short-term, project-based impact, at the expense of strategic support, movement-building and core funding.
This collective failure has gradually shamed grassroots charities into playing down their core costs and development needs, and systematically devalued learning, collaboration, professional development and long-term strategic planning.
So many times, I’ve had to persuade small charity CEOs that they can include a contribution towards running costs in their project budget, and they do deserve to pay themselves a salary for their work. They’re terrified that they’ll be judged and penalised by funders. And sometimes, they're right.
Contrary to what we’re often told, most grassroots charities don’t ‘waste’ money on salaries and running costs - they chronically underinvest in them. If, as a result, staff can’t or won’t pay for even low-cost training, infrastructure organisations like SCC can’t develop a sustainable business model – but they haven't been able to subsidise it through grant funding either.
"Oh sorry, we really value the work that you do, we just can’t fund it ourselves."
If a few funders say this, it’s their problem. But when almost every funder does, organisations like SCC fold, and that’s a problem for everyone.
SCC's closure is proof of this short-sighted grantmaking policy, but also problematic ego
Because well-funded infrastructure support does actually exist, just mainly in the form of Funder Plus programmes.
This sees funders often hand-pick a small number of their grantees to receive infrastructure support, mentoring or training alongside a grant. These charities aren’t the only people to benefit. Experienced consultants get to do exciting, generously-funded strategy and consultancy projects, either in-house for a funder or as a freelancer. I know, I’ve been one of them.
I’ve previously been an advocate for the Funder Plus model because, in isolation, it achieves badly-needed, often transformational impact for a few charities. But if Funder Plus support comes at the expense of funding for centralised infrastructure support for everyone, it’s part of the problem - expensive to deliver, only benefitting a few, and driven by ego.
"I want to decide which charities get support. I know best what types of support that people and organisations who are nothing like me really need. I want to see and shout about the tangible impact of my contribution, not fund an experienced, national organisation to do it at scale, for everyone."
If this sounds like harsh criticism, consider this: SCC supports over 16,000 members and their annual budget has never topped £400,000, only rarely exceeding £200,000. They might have survived with just four or five moderate multi-year grants from progressive funders, or a smaller contribution from a slightly larger number of funders.
That this has proved impossible is a damning indictment of our sector. How can you possibly argue that Funder Plus models achieve more impact and better value for money?
I’m painfully aware that this comes too late to save SCC. That’s already a tragedy - but if we don’t use it as a wake-up call, we'll be facing an existential crisis.
As a sector, we’re not so much shooting ourselves in the foot, we’re tearing out our own heart.
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