Opinion: How to welcome the maverick minnows

Nick Cater

From the Asian tsunami to Hurricane Katrina, and from Niger to Kashmir, giant disasters just keep coming - and with them, new charities created by inspired individuals driven to make a difference by a televised humanitarian crisis.

As the big NGOs will tell you, each disaster produces its crop of several hundred youngsters. Many don't make it beyond the initial enthusiasm, but some survive and a few even thrive and grow.

What makes these tiny charities and their strong-willed founders tick is the subject of a new study by the international development organisation Allavida, supported by the Hilden Charitable Fund, which put 30 small UK charities working overseas under scrutiny.

The study highlights their enterprising approach, specialist skills, in-kind donations, international volunteering and close work with communities, and suggests it helps if they can stay focused operationally while networking with similar groups.

But that cannot hide the clear limitations the study finds of small, isolated organisations - from poor management, financial weakness, inadequate planning and ad hoc learning to a dependency on volunteers and domination by a few individuals determined to do things their way.

These groups might say they have a strong positive impact, albeit in small areas, but such claims usually go without any independent evaluation.

This is more than just a matter for regret. If there is good work being done on a shoestring, it is certainly worth pursuing and replicating elsewhere.

But if their success is imaginary, then their time, other people's money and the partnership efforts of poor communities worldwide should not be wasted any further.

Rather than giving the impression that lighter regulation of charities turning over a few thousand pounds or less is the way to go, perhaps the Charity Commission should be urging them to produce more evidence of impact, learning and networking.

Is there also a lesson to be learned here by the big charity boys of Oxfam, Save the Children and others, or indeed for any large charity that gets approached by energetic individuals who are unwilling to become part of the machine? Instead of discouraging them so well that they set up Mini-Me rivals to distract, confuse and, perhaps, mislead donors and beneficiaries alike, how can major charities recall their own often unconventional origins and find ways to welcome the mavericks?

Nick Cater is a consultant and writer: catercharity@yahoo.co.uk.

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