When Michael Dickson launched Whizz-Kidz 12 years ago, he had little voluntary-sector experience and no idea about how to run a charity. His motivation had come from meeting a disabled girl the year before after being challenged to run the London Marathon. He and his business partner raised more than £9,000 for the event and decided that instead of donating the cash straight to charity, they would use some of it to buy an electric wheelchair for a girl with cerebral palsy.
After seeing what impact this relatively small gift had on her life, he decided to use the rest of the money to start an organisation dedicated to raising money to buy more chairs for mobility-impaired children. "There was a certain amount of serendipity involved," says Dickson. "We were presented with the opportunity and helped by friends along every step of the way."
He approached the next 10 years in much the same way. After initially setting out on a mission to raise money for one wheelchair, he now presides over a staff of 64 running a charity with an annual turnover of more than £4.7 million.
Dickson attributes the success to remaining an essentially entrepreneurial operation yet always keeping the charities founding objective at the forefront of his staff's mind. "When we reached our 10th anniversary, we all sat down and asked ourselves what we would do if we were to start again," he says. "I found that my perception of what would have the most impact on the issue of mobility for disabled children had changed and recognised that it was time we changed with it."
He realised that the charity had accumulated a large knowledge base over the past decade and had become a source of expertise in the field of disabled mobility. "It got to the point where we could either go on and continue to raise voluntary income, which could only ever help a few hundred children at a time, or change tack," he says.
This month Whizz-Kidz will appoint its first member of staff dedicated to lobbying the Government on the need to increase funding to local wheelchair services and professional care bodies, and hopes to reposition itself as a campaigning organisation.
The charity took the decision to move into public affairs work after groups, including the National Children's Task Force, approached it for advice to develop wheelchair services for young people. "As with many other elements relating to the growth of Whizz-Kidz, this was a slow evolutionary process," says Dickson. "It's encouraging that a venture which started out as a simple idea about giving wheelchairs to kids has developed into an organisation which is confident advising official bodies on the provision of services."
Dickson believes that part of the problem is that the Government simply isn't aware of the desperate need for these services, and intends to provide research-based information that will clearly identify specific areas that require immediate attention.
He concedes that it will be a gradual process as the charity initially intends to build strong contacts with relevant authorities. But it is vitally important that Whizz-Kidz gets its voice heard. "It became obvious that this area needed a champion," explains Dickson. "There is poor provision for these kids, wheelchairs appear to be dished out according to a postcode lottery and the whole area is vastly underfunded."
He also recognises that changes will have to be made. Whizz-Kidz is looking to expand its fundraising portfolio and create solid income foundations on which to build new services. Almost 95 per cent of the charity's income comes from voluntary fundraising activity, which includes a busy events programme and regular correspondence with its regular supporters. Although he acknowledges that many charities may envy such generous public support, Dickson recognises that Whizz-Kidz must take steps towards establishing a revenue base including channels such as legacy donations and more statutory income.
It will also look to maximise on its successes in public fundraising and is set to launch a major public campaign to boost awareness of Whizz-Kidz and the children it raises money for. "What we need to communicate is how mobility transforms these children's lives," he says. "We're going to keep our message simple and hopefully people will understand why it is so important that we continue to raise invaluable funds to buy equipment, but also begin to take a more proactive stance in asking the authorities to put this issue at the top of their agenda."
Dickson will also look to his supporters to lobby local MPs and authorities on behalf of the charity, and build a network of support in local areas.
It is maintaining this collaborative mentality that Dickson believes will lead to the charity's continued growth and development of its services. "We have a real advantage as we are still a small charity from humble beginnings," he says. "As long as we keep the reasons why we started Whizz-Kidz at the front of our minds, I have no doubt that we can speak in a loud and forceful voice for those children who so badly need our help."