Mandy Johnson: Our strength is in numbers

The recently appointed chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition, Mandy Johnson, says the organisation must make better use of its 8,500 members

Mandy Johnson
Mandy Johnson

If any minister or policy-maker would like to see first-hand the stark realities of running a small charity, I would thoroughly recommend a visit to the office of the Small Charities Coalition on the aptly named Crampton Street in south London.

The membership body for smaller charities leases office space from the Woodcraft Folk and the SCC staff find themselves having to work around a collection of the youth charity's paraphernalia.

But this is the reality of running a small charity in austerity Britain. State funding has dried up and demand for services is high. Collectively, this has created an environment in which spending precious income on expensive office space and items such as a new doorbell - the SCC's isn't working properly - are considered frivolity.

Recently thrust into this world is Mandy Johnson, a fundraiser by profession who made her name working for large charities such as Cancer Research UK and for her blogs on the website Charity Women. In August, Johnson was appointed chief executive of the SCC after taking voluntary redundancy from her role at the campaigning website Change.org while on maternity leave with her second child.

So how has a "big" charity person found herself at the helm of the representative body for charities with incomes of less than £1m a year? "All of my paid employment has been 'big', but most of my voluntary work has been small," says Johnson. "While I was on maternity leave with my first child I worked with a group of people where I live in St Albans to help set up the Funding Network there. I also became a trustee for my local Mind. I got interested in what it's like to be behind the scenes of a small charity."

It's early days in her tenure at the SCC, but Johnson says she already has three clear priorities, although she is quick to point out that they have yet to be ratified by her trustees. First, she says, is "cracking digital" for small charities. "For me, that's not looking at big expensive opportunities," she says. "It's about giving small charities access to the same things that bigger charities have the time to think about.

"I'm interested in a piece of research looking at what is possible from a digital perspective from small charities."

She says she thinks digital technology could particularly help small charities to deliver services. "In service delivery, there's money and time to be saved," she says.

Technology

During her time at Change.org, she learned about the value of using technology when it's more intelligent than humans, she says. Then it frees up people to do what they do well, "which is spending time with other humans and showing empathy".

Second on her list of priorities is collaboration. She says small charities need to work together more closely and the SCC must make more use of its network of 8,500 members. "Our strength is in numbers," she says. She would like the SCC and its members to kick the likes of G4S and other giant private sector contractors out of a commissioning system for local services traditionally run by charities. "Charities are better at doing that work," she says. "But we need to do some influencing there."

Johnson's third priority is the mental health of the charity workforce. A close friend of Johnson's committed suicide, which led her to becoming interested in the issue. Her travels around the country to visit SCC members have made her acutely aware of the pressures many in the sector face.

"Those who are surviving have been pushing themselves so hard," she says. "The last person staff and volunteers think about is themselves. When you push and push, it's so hard to look after your own mental health."

The next set of accounts, due to be published early next year, will show that the SCC had an income of about £300,000 in the year to May 2017. But surprisingly for a fundraiser with an enviable track record, Johnson says income growth is not an immediate priority. "I'm an ambitious person and, with the resources we've got, we can't achieve everything we'd like to," says Johnson. "But I'm responding to that by working with people who are kind enough to work voluntarily. Once I've done that, we'll be reviewing our finances. I've already secured more than the income that we need to secure ourselves this financial year."

No membership fee

The SCC raises income from a range of sources, including trusts and foundations, and by charging a small fee for its training. Unusually for a membership organisation, though, it does not charge members a fee. Like her predecessors, Johnson remains hesitant to go down the membership fee route. "A lot of organisations are struggling financially, and the first place they turn to is the people that help them," she says. "I'd just like to explore other options before turning to those that have the least."

Johnson has spent much of her career as a corporate fundraiser and believes the private sector could be key, not only to the SCC's own income in the future, but also that of her members. "When you speak to people who work for large companies, they want to be helping the smaller guys, but larger charities have made it easier to partner with them," she says. "I'm fascinated by how the SCC can make it easier for small charities to partner with large companies. If we form a model that works, it could be a good income stream for us."

Only three months into her role and Johnson is already developing a reputation for being outspoken. She has publicly criticised the Charity Commission for its handling of incidents reported by small charities and has taken the Fundraising Regulator to task over its fee structure for small charities. She also holds strong views on central government.

"I want to see it putting money where its mouth is in terms of supporting small charities," she says. "I like the fact the government has delegated some responsibility to local authorities, but I think it now finds it hard to influence what's happening on a local level. And, in one way or another, small charities end up losing."

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