Careers Guide: When size does matter

Does the working culture at a charity depend on how big it is? Patrick McCurry talks to professionals who moved from smaller to larger organisations

The move from a small voluntary organisation to a large one can be daunting at first: you’re moving from an environment where everyone knows each other to one where you’re a small part of a much bigger operation.

"You have to adjust to not knowing who everyone is when you go to the kitchen to make a coffee," says Ilona Pinter, who moved from the 19-strong National Council for Voluntary Youth Services to become a policy adviser at the Children’s Society, which has 684 staff.

But overall, she says, there are often benefits in making the leap to a bigger organisation. The main advantage is the opportunities for career progression and development. "In larger organisations there are lots of chances to learn new skills – through redeployment, for example," says Pinter.

There are opportunities to try new roles and tasks in smaller organisations as well, she says, but they might not offer the same training and support as larger charities. "It can be a problem if you find yourself having to do things that you’re not trained for," she says.

Alasdair Roxburgh, who joined Christian Aid’s campaigns team from the small charity Health Poverty Action, says that his time at a smaller charity gave him a grasp of how the whole organisation worked. "Working for a smaller charity allowed me to see the different challenges faced by each team and gain experience in a variety of areas," he says.

Another charity professional who joined a larger organisation is Jane Whitham, who moved to conservation charity BTCV after her post at the road safety charity Brake was made redundant. "It’s easier to get to know all your colleagues in a smaller charity and everyone pitches in, so all staff are involved in media work, for example," she says.
"The downside is that you can become a jack of all trades rather than hone your specialism."

The sheer variety of projects at a larger charity is appealing, says Pinter: "The Children’s Society has an amazing tradition of projects and is a stimulating place to work."

In many ways, however, working in a smaller charity gives someone the chance to experience a greater variety of work. Paul Tranter, a regional fundraising manager at the RSPB who joined the conservation charity from Epilepsy Action, says: "I’m working with a similar budget to when I was at Epilepsy Action, but there I was working across the board on fundraising, whereas at the RSPB I’m specialising in grant funding."

Tranter appreciates the opportunity to develop his skills in one specialism and work in a more focused way. Like Pinter, he recognises the variety of activities that his larger employer offers.

"As an organisation, the RSPB is involved in a huge range of activities, projects and programmes, both in conservation and working with people."

The speed with which decisions are made can vary enormously, depending on the size of the organisation. Smaller charities with flatter hierarchies are often able to respond more quickly and nimbly than bigger, more hierarchical organisations.

As Tranter says: "In smaller organisations, decision-makers are usually more accessible – they’re often sitting across the room."

But not all large charities are bureaucratic, he says. In some cases, their structures allow for similarly rapid decision-making. "Because of the RSPB’s devolved and regional structure, it is often possible to get decisions made fairly quickly, although there are certain areas where head office approval is needed," he says.

Pinter says the greater bureaucracy in larger charities is not always a bad thing: "Big charities have operational systems, policies and procedures in place so that, in many cases, getting things done is easier. On the other hand, at times it feels like you have to jump through lots of hoops."

When it comes to introducing new ideas, many people might think that smaller charities would be more welcoming than larger ones. This is not necessarily so, says Whitham. She points out that a small charity run by a charismatic founder might have its own way of doing things – and it might not welcome any alternatives.

The passion that staff feel for their work seems to be determined by the cause of the charity rather than its size. Tranter says: "I’ve found that the staff at the RSPB are very passionate about the work, perhaps more so than at Epilepsy Action – but that could be to do with the fact people get very passionate about conservation, whatever the size of organisation."

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