Interview: Alex Swallow

The chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition has a 'tough message' for members

Alex Swallow
Alex Swallow

Last year, Alex Swallow was on the verge of leaving London for his home town of Brighton and also thinking seriously about moving to Australia. But a conversation he had with Cath Lee, the former chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition and Charity Trustee Network, changed all that.

Lee was leaving the role and moving to West Yorkshire, and she suggested that Swallow should apply to be her successor. He went for it, and last November the 30-year-old Cambridge social and political science graduate was appointed after being interviewed by two trustees: Debra Allcock Tyler, the chief executive of the Directory of Social Change, and Simon Hebditch, the former chief executive of Capacitybuilders.

Swallow had previously worked as a fundraising, development and communications officer at the National Benevolent Fund for the Aged, a charity that supports older people facing isolation, but he is better known for founding Young Charity Trustees in 2011, a charity that encourages young people to become trustees.

He says he was surprised to be offered the job: "I hoped to get an interview but I didn't expect to be selected. I think I showed I had potential and that I'm passionate about governance and small charities. I was lucky that they recognised my potential and didn't go for a safe bet."

Relative youth

Swallow manages three staff members at the coalition, which supports charities with incomes of less than £1m a year. Two are younger than him and one is older. He says his relative youth has not been a problem so far. "I have really good people working for me who see the work we do as more than just a job. That said, there have been things for me to learn about the culture of the organisation and where I fit in."

He believes he faces two main challenges. One is properly representing the views of the organisation's membership of more than 6,000 small charities, many of which are facing increased demand for their services at a time when their incomes have fallen. The other is placing the Small Charities Coalition on a more sustainable financial footing.

The coalition had an income of £170,000 last year, most of which came from a handful of major trusts. "We need to diversify our income, target smaller trusts and look at legacies and online donations," says Swallow. "We also need to get people doing fundraising activities for us, such as running the marathon."

He says small charities have been affected by cuts in public spending in many ways, but one of the most tangible effects has been diminishing local support. "For example, we've had calls from members who want help in drafting their constitutions," says Swallow. "In the past, they've received help from their local councils for voluntary service, but when they haven't been able to get help because of cuts, they have come to us for advice."

Although many members are worried about cuts, Swallow doesn't think it dominates their thinking. "The focus is less on 'woe is us' and more on 'how can we be better at fundraising?'" he says. "People are thinking about how they can diversify their income."

Another concern for Swallow is the common view that most charities are large organisations that run high-profile advertising campaigns. "A lot of people don't realise that the charities in their communities are actually constituted as charities," he says. "If we want to support smaller charities and help some of them to become bigger charities, we have to think carefully about how we talk about charities and how much air-time big charities get compared with smaller charities."

Tough message

He also thinks smaller charities, especially those that are not part of large national organisations, need to get better at telling people about their work. "They need to speak up," he says. "I don't want to patronise small charities, but they should be challenged on this issue.

"Trustees should be helping the charity to think more long term and focus not just on the service they provide. It's a tough message for charities, but these are tough times."

Small charities also need to make more of the opportunities afforded by social media and the internet, he says. Young Charity Trustees became a charity with a national profile despite never having a paid employee, and he credits its success partly to its presence on Twitter. "If the sector wants to be relevant, we need to find ways of building the power of new technology into what we do," he says. "I wouldn't have been able to do what I've done if it wasn't for the internet."

CV:

2012: Chief executive, Small Charities Coalition and Charity Trustee Network
2011: Founder, Young Charity Trustees
2009: Fundraising, development and communications officer, National Benevolent Fund for the Aged
2006: Masters in International Relations at the University of Sussex

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