Leesa Harwood: The mice will roar again in the voluntary sector

Small charities are changing the world from the bottom up and will have their time again

Leesa Harwood
Leesa Harwood

In 1959, the economically beleaguered, tiny European Duchy of Fenwick invaded the US in a trade war over wine.

Twenty Fenwick soldiers accidentally fought and defeated the mighty superpower. This is the plot of The Mouse that Roared, a slapstick comedy film from a time when biggest was best.

Today, just like the Duchy of Fenwick, small charities could be forgiven for thinking they are being undercut and outperformed by bigger counterparts. Statistically it appears that they are.

According to the Charity Commission, the smallest 86 per cent of all registered charities in England and Wales receive only 9.4 per cent of total charitable income. Apparently, mice do not roar in the third sector.

But I’m more optimistic about the potential of small charities than these numbers suggest. First, these indicators are echoes from a time when biggest was best, data was king and charities with powerful brands and colossal direct marketing machines took the lion’s share of support.

They tell us more about the past than the future.

Second, if you look closely it is possible to see signs of a power shift, challenging the assumption that the largest 1.3 per cent will always overpower the smallest 98.7 per cent.

The Fenwick spirit is alive and kicking among small organisations. The Association of Charitable Foundations reports a growing trend among top trusts to invest in place-based, collaborative community projects.

A growing culture of social investment works much more effectively for small, entrepreneurial, community bodies.

More importantly, though, there is a growing cultural gap between large and small charities. Big, altruistic charity business models perpetuate a top-down approach of doing things to and for people.

But small charities are changing the world from the grass roots up, sharing ownership of problems and co-creating solutions with the communities they serve.

The Gap Wales is a charity in Newport, south Wales. Mark Seymour and his tiny team of staff and volunteers work with refugees and asylum seekers in the local community.

With the charity having grown from a turnover of £10,000 to £100,000 in ten years, he feels the charity has reached its optimum size: more growth would increase scale, but would compromise the quality of relationships and effect, as well as increasing complexity and cost.

Anyway, his three-year aspirations can all be achieved within his current financial model. He is adamant that bigger is not necessarily better.

Like many small charities, The Gap is entrepreneurial and cost-conscious, as well as instinctively agile and obsessively prudent.

On a Wednesday lunchtime, Mark and his team have a weekly meal with a group of refugees, staff, volunteers and community members.

If it has been a good fundraising month, chicken will be added to the rice dinner – that is one of the best fundraising KPIs I’ve ever seen.

People no longer have an obligation to support charities to change the world. Instead, charities have an obligation to support people to change the world. It is not the biggest that will survive but the most agile and relevant.

I predict that big direct marketing monsters will kill their masters. Powerful brands will give way to relevant causes. Simplicity will prevail over complexity.

Coalface collaboration will surpass arm’s length well meaning. Flexibility and diversity will be more important than intransigence and uniformity. Small, networked changemakers will overtake big, single organisations.

Small charities can and should stop trying to emulate their superpower counterparts. Be small, be proud, be agile. Your time has come. Is that a mouse roaring?

Leesa Harwood is a fundraising consultant

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