Paul Streets: Small charities are key to local partnerships

Research by the Lloyds Bank Foundation shows that small charities bring a distinctive offer and approach

Paul Streets
Paul Streets

At the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales we’re launching a new five-year strategy, Reaching Further, which is all about partnership. Maybe it doesn’t seem like such a radical idea that funders should do their best to work in partnership rather than, as is often cited, just handing out cash. But truly overcoming the power dynamic and living out partnership, rather than just aspiring to it, is I believe still a bold move and a radical change, because we and many other funders and sector bodies just aren’t there yet.

The need to "be a partner" has crystallised for us in the past few months as we’ve digested the findings of research we commissioned, and are launching alongside the strategy today, into what makes small charities distinctive. From the research we now know for certain, with tangible evidence, that what they bring is a distinctive offer and approach, and they occupy a unique position in their communities. These things set them apart from others addressing social issues. If we – not only the Lloyds Bank Foundation, but more broadly as a sector – can mirror the approach small and local charities take to supporting their clients, we’ll end up with a really strong and robust third sector.

ALSO READ Small charities 'struggle to demonstrate impact to funders', says report

The research identifies a number of distinctive attributes around who charities work with and how, and which could be considered akin to partnership. The four in-depth area level studies showed that they offer a safe space and a familiar face – somewhere local enough for people to turn to easily, where they will find people they can relate to.

It’s not just about what small and local charities do but the way they help their clients, starting with them as people rather than matching their problems to a standard model. Because they’re small there’s a short chain of command, so they can act faster, often responding more quickly than others to moments of crisis. And having waded in, those charities are often able to go the distance because they are more flexible and have less rigid outcome targets, like those that are often in place with larger providers.

Lastly, small and local charities are seen as the glue that holds communities together, joining the dots between different service providers, knowing the unspoken context that makes different clients’ cases unique and making things happen to help people rebuild their lives even when that’s not straightfoward to achieve.

Despite these clear benefits, at the moment there’s a critical mismatch between them and the way national and local government buys public services. The move from grants to contracts has transferred resources from smaller charities to larger. Indeed, 84 per cent of local government spending now goes to larger charities. With this knowledge, it’s imperative that we call it out and call for commissioning reform.

When it comes to more everyday grant-making, being a partner is about offering small and medium-sized local charities more money, for longer and more flexibly – funding the heating and lighting costs, not the shiny new projects. We need to trust their expertise to use our cash in the most effective way, because they’re the ones answering to people dealing with tough issues every day.

But we can only do so much, so it’s our hope that in Small Charities Week, as we celebrate what makes small charities unique, we can all do more to model partnership so that those smaller charities thrive alongside larger ones. We need to make sure we’re nurturing those charities that are the glue of local networks. By partnering with others that share our vision, the sector can achieve more than any of us could alone.

From today you’ll notice a "slash" across our new branding. That slash signifies our recognition that, without the charities we fund, we can achieve little. They’ve set the bar, but now we, across the sector and in local and national government, need to play our part to reach it.

Paul Streets is Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales @lbfew @PaulStreets_

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