What is it like to work in… A Small Charity?

Published: 29 Jan 2014 By Devi Clark

The larger charities: the Cancer Research UKs, Citizens Advice Bureaux or Oxfam’s, get the lion’s share of attention from the general public.  But, the vast majority of the charities in the UK are small. Yet, they punch above their weight when it comes to impact.

NCVO counts 160,000 registered charities with an annual income of less than £1million – that is 96% of the sector.  Even that is believed to be the tip of the iceberg, with perhaps another 600,000 civil society organisations operating under the radar.

Ignoring small charities as sources of employment or volunteering is like ignoring an elephant’s body and only looking at its ears or trunk.  Although some are completely volunteer run, finding work in a small charity is a great way to have an impact and develop a fulfilling career.

Small charities are a microcosm of the sector as a whole.

Small charities engage in every type of charitable activity, from playgroups to international development projects, from animals to the arts.

Many small charities work in their local areas, tapping into the support of their community. Others are not geographically limited, but specialise in helping a particular group. If you have a medical condition that affects only 400 people in the UK you may find a small charity to provide you with expert advice.

Diverse organisations with ‘can-do’ attitudes

Some of the smallest charities are run by their trustees, who balance their governance duties with mucking in to get the work done.  In contrast, the larger of the small charities may have specialist staff or departments for operations, communications, human resources or fundraising as well as a CEO.

Working in a small charity often demands a willingness to do a bit of everything, from delivering services to changing the printer toner cartridge.

“There is no typical day,” says Alex Swallow, CEO of the Small Charities Coalition (SCC), on his own daily routine, “but some things do come up quite often: running our core services, participating in outside meetings, a bit of press work, a lot of strategy work and keeping in touch with trustees and volunteers.”

“If you are talking about very small charities, the most important thing is the mindset. You need an appetite for hard work and an appetite for change and risk!” says Cath Lee, CEO at small charity, Leeds Mencap and Alex’s predecessor at SCC. “A lot of the people who set up small charities are not specialists. They have a passion and a commitment and they learn what they need to learn.”

Small charities face a lot of challenges

Although small charities make up the majority of organisations in the sector, the smallest charities, those with an income of less than £500k, only earn 11.2% of the income.  They do a lot of work with this small amount of money.  Income generation and funding is therefore one of the greatest challenge faced by small charities.

“If you are in a senior role, you are never not thinking about the money, because you need to keep it coming in,” comments Cath.

Small charities rarely have reserves, and with the funding cuts of recent years they are interested in ways to diversify their income and demonstrate the impact of their work.  Many small charities are looking at how they might use online tools to cut costs, increase their reach and to spread the word about who they are.

But, however tough the environment, the people make small charities what they are. As Cath Lee reminds us, her eyes shining, “They don’t give up.”

Devi Clark is a third sector coach who helps career changers find meaningful ethical work. She blogs at www.mynewleaf.co.uk/ts


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