Friday 23 January 2015

Who listens to what the smaller charities have to say?

Over the last few years I have, sadly, witnessed many small, expertly informed and passionately dedicated charities - and other not-for-profit organisations - being squeezed into oblivion on the funding front because (it seems) the funds are mostly given to larger, more influential NGO's.

There are still funders and philanthropists out there who prefer to give their monies to grass root organisations, but they seem to be fewer and farther between these days. This concerns me because it means we are losing diversity….in more ways than one!

I'm not suggesting for one moment that we don't need the larger charities. I understand how important it is that they continue to receive the funds and donations needed to deliver their vitally important messages and work…..especially because they reach such a large audience and, in many cases, are able to influence policy decisions at government level. HOWEVER, having run a small charity myself, and having been seriously tempted to shift the focus of that charity's aims when applying for funds - in order to tap in to any available funding just to survive - I have become increasingly uncomfortable with the way the system (especially in the case of corporate donations and sponsorship) favours the larger and better known charities.

One of my biggest concerns is when national & international charities take up causes that their trustees, management and staff appear to know little about. For instance, I have seen members and volunteers of large charities being interviewed on BBC news about bee decline and have been dismayed to hear them leave out enormously important information, or even worse, deliver mis-information. When this happens, I fear, with the greatest of respect for their aims, that they are in danger of doing more harm than good.

In the mean time, the media are mostly oblivious of smaller charities who have been working for years, sometimes decades on raising awareness of this, and other issues….charities who really know their bees from their bees and who have (in some cases) now folded because the large funders and corporate sponsors prefer to nail their flags to larger masts.

Of course we need as many voices as possible to speak out for the myriad environmental, ecological and humanitarian issues facing us today….and if the national press are only interested in promoting the charitable aims of the larger charities then so be it, but I really hope we don't end up in a situation where the voices being heard come solely from charities/organisations so large that they are begin to resemble corporations….. whilst smaller, but equally knowledgeable voices get squeezed out completely.

This is a big subject to tackle in a little blog post, and I haven't fully worked out where I'm going with my own thoughts yet, but I'd be extremely interested to know what others think?

Thank you,

N.B. I still donate to, support and promote the work of many large charities myself, so please don't read what I have just written as an attack on said organisations. It isn’t. I just don't like seeing the amazingly dedicated smaller charities being squeezed out of the arena and wanted to air this concern to see what others think. Hopefully I will discover that I've got it all wrong and that more small grass root organisations are actually healthy and thriving than are hitting brick walls and folding.


  1. the large charities can afford to send paid employees to meetings and conferences, where they bond with each other. As grant funding is essential to keep these people in their jobs, that is as part of a loose social network within their general work, they are inspired to pass on news of funding opportunities to each other, not to smaller groups. I don't have an answer yet.

    1. Interesting points. Many thanks for your feedback Elizabeth

  2. I've worked for a couple of charities, one large and one very small (neither were conservation ones) and there is such a huge difference in charities' relationships with the media and government. A large charity will have paid press officers & researchers, staff & volunteers trained in being interviewed & available for interviews in different parts of the country at short notice - so they are probably more useful as contacts for a journalist or TV producer because they will almost always be able to say yes. They will also have people who are able to get to conferences and other events where they will become better known, make more contacts - it's self-perpetuating. They also have professional fundraisers applying for grants, people to negotiate with corporate sponsors, support their volunteers, etc, so are able to raise a lot more money.

    But I think any big organisation is going to have some well-intentioned people who go 'off-message', just because it's really hard to manage hundreds (or even thousands) of people who might have got involved with the organisation for a range of reasons. Although it's very hard for small charities to keep afloat with few resources, it's also easier to manage a small number of people all motivated by a more focused objective.

    I wonder if it would help if smaller charities were more open with their supporters about financial struggles? I don't know what the answer is, but I think it's really interesting that you've written about this- as always, a very interesting blog.

    1. Thank you for the feedback Catherine….especially useful to hear thoughts from someone who has worked in the charity sector.

      Maybe it would help if smaller charities were more open with their supporters about financial struggles, but I think it would be a double edged sword...

  3. It is certainly an issue for conservation and environmental charities Brigit.

    Both the media and funding bodies (of all varieties) will of course favour the larger charities over the smaller ones, not least because large charities can afford to employ press officers and professional fundraisers.

    Some funders however are very good at ensuring that they fund small charities as well as large ones, Esmee Fairbairn being the best example in the Grant Making Trust sector. The Lottery is also very good at supporting small charities; and has specific funding lines just for this purpose. But as other funding sources eg public sector, dwindle or disappear, the competition gets greater and the bigger charities can afford to outspend the smaller ones.

    While larger charities tend to get their press releases picked up by the traditional press, in this brave world of social media, smaller charities have a wider range of opportunities to get their message across, via blogs, facebook, twitter, youtube and all the other outlets, as well as the more traditional routes. Whether social media is as effective at getting messages across to key audiencces as the papers, radio or tv, is moot. I'd be interested to see some figures comparing the two.

    Larger charities do inevitably end up operating as corporations, with "lines to take" and official spokespeople. They also have to expend significant resources just to retain their large memberships, and it can sometimes feel like they are as concerned to further their own existence as to further their original (or revised) objectives. But then how many charities are set up with a strict time limit, after which they have to close themselves down?
    And how many conservation charities have achieved their objectives and can disappear? None that I can think of.

    I think the ecosystem of nature conservation charities is a bit like a very lichen rich bit of tree bark. Some species with broad habitat requirements will grow large, until they come up against another large individual and they form a common boundary. Little lichens will appear on their surfaces either in symbiosis or as parasites. Other species with more specialist requirements will grow slowly in odd places away from the larger commoner species; and others will start growing but fail to colonise altogether and die. Is that an appropriate metaphor?

    1. Thank you for your response Miles. I am especially interested in your thoughts how smaller charities are able to use social media to get their messages across.

      Love your lichen metaphor - makes perfect sense to me and sums up the issue beautifully!


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