Morgan Phillips: A year of running a small charity

Working for a small charity has taught me many things, including that you have a great deal of freedom and can innovate quickly, writes our guest columnist

Morgan Phillips
Morgan Phillips

One year ago, I quit my role at a medium-sized environmental charity to – as one tends to put it on a CV – "seek new opportunities". It was a leap of faith and three months later I landed in Nepal. Well, almost. I became the UK director of the Glacier Trust, a small climate change adaptation charity. Pretty soon I was on a plane to Kathmandu and off into the mountains to spend time with my one and only colleague (our Nepal-based director), our delivery partners and, most importantly, the people our charity exists to support.

Back in the UK, the adjustment in my working life has been profound. Solo working for a small charity has taught me much. I have far more freedom to innovate – in programme design, in fundraising, in marketing, in partnership working – but much less impressive social media and Google analytics stats to trade off. In my old job, it took two hours for my inbox to fill up. I would average at least three meetings or lengthy phone calls a day and lose countless minutes to office chatter. It takes a week for all these things to happen now.

Adapting to this change, which boils down to having far more time to do the work that actually needs doing, has been both challenging and liberating. It required a significant mindset shift. 

Because of their bureaucracies, medium-sized and large charities are not as agile as businesses of a similar size or smaller charities. They move slowly, especially in reaction to external changes and shocks, failing to react, to change, to innovate. It can occasionally be fatal for an organisation. This is not news to many in the third sector, I’m sure, but the tortoise-like nature of some charities is not the only reason they lack agility and suffer when the world moves. 

Tortoise charities can sometimes morph into a sort of tortoise/ostrich mutant too. They feel so sure that they are the solution to the problem that they, head in sand, fail to appreciate that external conditions are changing and are no longer the priority or the chosen one. 

A charity’s ego can prevent it from seeing that it is shaped by the world, not the other way around. A sense of entitlement also rears its head when a start-up pops up to disrupt the sector. The stubborn, established charity kicks out at the new entrant, incensed that it is encroaching on a comfortable niche. Instead of reacting positively, it refuses to accept that someone else could have some good ideas. It doggedly continues its tried-and-tested methods and falls behind in the process.

It is easy for the entitlement mindset to creep in, especially if you are regularly told (or tell yourself) that you are special. It has happened to programmes and charities I have worked for and with. But it is far less likely in a small charity, and I have learned this in spades this year.

Small charities are tiny fishes in large oceans. They have almost no power to influence policymakers or funders. Our opinions do not matter; we are not a threat. Emails reaching out to businesses, organisations and journalists go unanswered. There is very little danger that we might delude ourselves into thinking we are special and entitled to special treatment. We are almost never given it.

As an example, we have recently complained to a corporate operator of large challenge events. We asked why charities are charged £120 plus VAT per place on one of its mass-participation cycling events. The standard entry fee for individuals is only £75. It said it charged charities £120 plus VAT per place because the event would sell out and because it could. We, as a small charity, are left to take it or leave it.

So what do we do? We innovate, we adapt. We humbly watch what is happening in our little world, then use our freedom and fleetness of foot to shift course. We try out new fundraising initiatives, we move fast on digital and tech innovation, we develop unconventional partnerships and take inspiration, not umbrage, from the successes of sector colleagues. In this way, we stay present; we stay alive.

We know that the world (or even our sector) will never bend to our way of doing things. We therefore ditch tried-and-tested methods as soon as they hit their sell-by dates and quickly focus on finding new solutions.

Bigger charities could do this, too, but only if they curtailed their own sense of entitlement and stopped themselves from blaming others and their own bureaucracies for their lack of agility. Remember, there are large, very large, businesses that are bureaucratic too, but the good ones are successful because they are rapid innovators. They are not the world; they adapt to the world.   

Morgan Phillips is co-director of the Glacier Trust, which provides training and support in some of the most remote villages in Nepal 

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