Polly Neate: Big or small, we must all work together

If larger charities keep expanding at the expense of their smaller counterparts, we will fail

Polly Neate
Polly Neate

I’m here at Shelter to be part of a big change. Big change is only ever the sum of many smaller changes: from my previous role at Women’s Aid, a federation of smaller charities (some very small indeed), I know that the impetus that builds through change with individuals and in communities is just as important – if not more so – than the impact a big charity can achieve by lobbying at national level. 

To end the current housing emergency, we’re fighting for lasting change, and Shelter can’t make that happen alone.

The organisation has committed in our strategy to build a movement and to bring 500,000 people with us on that journey.

Shelter is returning to its roots as a community-led organisation, focused on fundamental change.

Movements grow from the bottom up, not from the top down, and our work must reflect this, with Shelter’s national functions responding to the experiences and injustice faced by those we serve.

No one group or party is to blame for the current housing emergency, and no one group or party can end it either.

We need to be open to all who share our desire for change, and that means being honest about where Shelter needs to do better, to bring about a more open and collaborative culture.

I don’t want Shelter to be uncomfortable sharing our platform and voice with others. I don’t want us to be defensive or hoard our power.

That’s why we are fully behind the Big Support Small campaign.

Charities with incomes of less than £1m make up 97 per cent of charities in England and Wales.

The Small Charities Coalition, made up of 9,000 members and supporters is launching the Big Support Small campaign today to mark the start of Small Charity Week 2019.

When the SCC reached out to me for support, I remembered the huge impact and unique contribution of the small charities I’ve worked with.

They are civil society in action, reminding us of the foundations of a big organisation like Shelter – people coming together to change things for the better.

It is simply not possible for us to do our best for the communities we serve without their expertise and deep understanding. And that does not mean learning from them and then leaving them behind. It has to mean true partnership.

For example, in Manchester one of our community organisers reached out to charities and religious groups to organise a vigil for those who died homeless, a powerful moment that brought together many people in the city.

In Lancashire, we work with women’s centres to provide debt and benefits advice; a broad coalition works in partnership in Merseyside on the Aged Veterans project; our London hub works with the wonderful Magpie Project in Newham, which supports mums and children under five years old. There are many other examples, and there will be more.  

But big supporting small doesn’t stop at conventional partnerships.

We’ll also use our Shelter shops and hubs as a base to support a social movement with the power and influence to defend the right to a safe home.

Each of our hubs has developed a local vision in partnership with others and we want to use our assets to build capacity locally, from campaigning to offering office space and support with communications.

There is pressure across civil society. Resources are scarce and the need is huge and growing.

I don’t ever want to think I can’t learn something new from someone who works for a smaller organisation. Where we can listen, we should; where we can support, we must. Collectively, we must not be just the cushion that allows a total retreat by the state from our most vulnerable people and communities.

We are not just "service providers" competing for funds and plugging the gaps. We are a force for good, for a better society.

But if big charities keep expanding, at the expense of small, we will fail. 

At Shelter, we will try to empower and amplify the voice of anyone who wants to work alongside us, big or small.

Do we always get it right? No. But I know recognising and supporting small charities is an important first step and is the only way to a stronger, more trusted sector that can truly and legitimately fight for social justice. 

Polly Neate is chief executive of Shelter 

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