Mandy Johnson: Will Local Charities Day help small charities?

The initiative must do what it says on the tin and not be taken over by larger charities, writes our columnist

Mandy Johnson
Mandy Johnson

Right now, there will be a Marie Curie nurse caring for someone in their own home in the final days of their life. I’ve had the privilege of meeting several Marie Curie nurses and my husband’s grandmother received this vital service on the night she passed away. The work they do is incredible and the service they provide is hyper local. It’s likely that a Marie Curie nurse is caring for someone in your local community as you read this article.

Marie Curie deserves to be celebrated for the wonderful work that it does as a charity, but I imagine that, when the former Minister for Civil Society conceived the idea of Local Charities Day in 2016, this is not the sort of charity he wanted to amplify. Marie Curie is a charity that is close to my heart, but it is also a large, national charity. Its size means that it can afford to invest in marketing and fundraising – it is not an unsung hero like the majority of small charities that I work with every day. It is these unsung heroes that I think Local Charities Day should be set up to support.

Ninety-seven per cent of registered charities have incomes of under £1m and most are local. Many were set up by people who wanted to address the needs they saw within their own communities. They are often not small because they are at the start of their journey, or hoping to become "better" in the future; they are small because they are focused and specific. These small charities don’t need millions of pounds to deliver the exceptional work they do every day. But most need more than they have at the moment if they are going to survive.

Larger charities have the luxury of headquarters from which they can make the decision to retract or withdraw a service if it does not look financially viable. This decision is not as easy for small charities. I spoke to a local food bank in Manchester that had a man turn up on their doorstep who had not eaten for three days. He had walked more than a mile to get there because he couldn’t afford the bus fare and collapsed upon arrival. The commercial decisions of that small charity are made in the same venue, by the same people who also distribute food to people in need. They can see the immediate impact that walking away will have on the people they were set up to serve. This means that small charities are often the first to help, but also the last to leave when funding dries up – and they desperately need more support. Eighty per cent of all funding of the charity sector to goes to the largest 3 per cent of charities, according to the National Coucil for Voluntary Organisations. In the meantime, demand is increasing for small charities while funding is decreasing, and there is only so long that any of us can keep going with the pressures we are under.

I am grateful to Tracey Crouch, the Minister for Civil Society, for bringing back Local Charities Day on 15 December. It is important that the work of small charities in our local communities is celebrated, amplified and supported. But the mechanism that they have been given to engage is to write a blog, produce a video or jump on a (hopefully trending) hashtag – things they would all be doing every day if they had the time and resources. Sadly, this is not the reality for most. My fear is that if Local Charity Day is a success we will start seeing larger charities using the opportunity to shout about the great work that they do at a local level and small charities will once again be drowned out by those who can put money behind their messaging.

My advice to small charities in the short term would be to use the opportunity if you can, while you still have the opportunity to be heard. Try to get volunteers to create social media content that can be shared by your charity and others for Local Charities Day. However, in the long term, I think we need to get the government to appreciate that although local support is important there is so much more that can and needs to be done to make sure that the vital small charities in our communities are given the support they need to survive – and this needs to be more than a flash in the pan for one day of the year.

Mandy Johnson is the chief executive of the Small Charities Coalition

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