Clare Laxton: Is bigger actually better?

The trend towards super-massive charities might just be going into reverse

Clare Laxton
Clare Laxton

When it comes to most things, we seem increasingly to be thinking that smaller is the future. Just look at the popularity of the Apple Watch (other smartphone watches are available) and our increasing love for teeny, tiny cars.

We generally seem to be coming to the conclusion that smaller is better, but has the charity sector caught up with that thinking? Do we still think bigger is better when it comes to the size of third sector organisations?

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations’ UK Civil Society Almanac 2018 shows that charities with incomes of more than £1m a year account for 81 per cent of the whole sector’s income, but make up only 3 per cent of the total number of charities. The vast majority of the charity sector is made up of smaller organisations with incomes of less than £100,000 a year. However, according to the NCVO, there has been an increase in the number of "super-major charities" – organisations with annual incomes greater than £100m – in recent years. I wonder if this trend, and the belief that bigger is always better, will continue.

Looking at the recent news pages of Third Sector, we see charity giants such as Oxfam having to reduce their budgets because of predicted falls in donations. We also see others, such as the disability charity Scope, moving away from service delivery to focusing on changing attitudes and influencing policy and, in the process, substantially cutting the size of the organisation. There are other charities, such as the RNIB, that are making the strategic decision to become a bit smaller. It seems therefore that the trend for an increase in super-massive charities (my take on super-major) might be about to go into reverse.

If you work in the charity sector and are frequently asked "why don’t all the smaller charities just merge into the bigger ones?", this reversal might seem an unlikely course of events. Then there is the old argument about there being too many charities – not something you hear about small businesses, incidentally – which would also support the view that there should be fewer, bigger charities.

But I think we are starting to see the tide change direction. Having worked and volunteered for many small charities, I think it would be a real positive for the sector to no longer be dominated by the super-massive charity brands in a few years’ time.

Smaller charities often have a very specific focus and are absolute experts in the needs of their beneficiaries, but they rarely get national recognition and support. Too often they also struggle to influence national debate and policy. So perhaps there’s an opportunity for bigger and smaller organisations to work together, learn from each other and influence national debates.

The truth of the matter is that we might be seeing the end of the ever-increasing size of some of the biggest charities. Is that a positive thing? I think it probably is.

Clare Laxton is associate director for policy and influencing at Clic Sargent, chair of the Kids Network and a trustee of the National Children's Bureau. @ladylaxton

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