OPINION: Protect the small from the big

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

It is Fiona Jerreat's leaving party today in Gravesend. For 10 years she has been running a small disability charity in north Kent with great panache, great success and at some considerable personal cost in terms of her family life.

Her charity is, in today's third sector, as unfashionable as that dwindling band of family-owned stores that try to compete with corporate chains on the local high street. The drive at the recent breakfast seminar at 11 Downing Street, hosted by Paul Boateng, to focus on how the Chancellor's promised £125 million for charities might be used, was all about bigger and therefore better. So there was much talk about mergers of smaller charities with overlapping interests, about creating larger bodies with more clout, and countrywide networks able to forge nationwide partnerships with Government in the delivery of key services. As with much else in contemporary society, independent local providers are regarded as unsound, uneconomic and in desperate need of central guidance and a make-over.

The larger charities, either implicitly and sometimes explicitly, hint that small, grassroots organisations have neither the manpower, the money nor the management know-how to do the job as well as Big Brother.

Yet these same small-scale bodies both deliver the sort of individual care that we all so crave, and connect an often apathetic public with the needs that exist at the heart of their communities. Margaret Thatcher's wicked words about there being no such thing as community continue to strike a chord in too many hearts. Local charities, working within their neighbourhoods, sustained by local people, local money and local people who cannot quite fix their eyes on the far consumer horizon because there is too much chaos and unhappiness on their doorsteps, are a vital corrective to the individualistic tendency that is still consigning swathes of our fellow citizens to the margins.

Without wanting to sound like a Little Englander, you don't have to be big to be effective.

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