Mandy Johnson: What do Oxfam, horse meat and small charities have in common?

Please feel some love towards small charities this Valentine's Day, writes our guest columnist

Mandy Johnson
Mandy Johnson

I have been trying to keep my nose out of the Oxfam scandal over the last few days. I discussed it with a few of my trustees and we agreed that it was a big charity-specific issue. Most charities (82 per cent) in the UK have no paid members of staff and are run exclusively by their trustees. If there is a problem with any one person’s behaviour, the board is likely to know about it.

Yet the conversation around Oxfam appears to have evolved into conclusions that refer to the 'charity sector' as a whole, implying that we should all be tarnished with the same brush. This is not fair, it is not right, and the small charities that it could negatively impact do not have the time or resources to do anything about it.

When the horsemeat scandal hit the headlines in 2013, it was clear that this was an issue for larger supermarkets. The media did not conclude that every burger seller in the country had problems with their supply chain. The British public understood the difference between large supermarkets and small, independent butchers. In fact, many turned to their local butcher as a meat supplier that they knew and trusted. Yet the same level of understanding is yet to be applied to the charity sector.

Ninety-seven per cent of charities in the UK have an income of less than £1m. The majority of the sector is made up of small organisations that make a big impact to the communities that they serve. Their size allows them to be specialists in niche areas and the work I have seen delivered by so many small charities across the country is truly amazing.

Oxfam represents the minority of the sector; the three per cent that have an income of more than £1m. To put Oxfam into the same category as the majority of charities in the country is like categorising Tesco with your local, independent butcher. Yet when Oxfam hits the headlines in a negative way the media summarises its actions as indicative of the 'charity sector' as a whole and risks damaging the trust of the public in donating to small charities across the UK.

Today the Small Charities Coalition is publishing a piece of research that shows just how unloved small charities are feeling at the moment. Our report delivers a Valentine’s Day message politicians may not be keen to hear. Three per cent of the small charities that responded to our survey feel valued by government; our research demonstrates how distracted they have become by larger organisations such as Oxfam and Carillion.

On a day like Valentine’s Day, when we are reminded to think of those we love, I would ask all of you to think of a small charity that has made a big difference in your life and tell someone about it. We need to get more of the positive stories from the majority of the sector into the public arena to counteract the mistakes of the minority.

Mandy Johnson is chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition

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