Purely Academic: Existing measures of charity size verge on the meaningless

The sector needs a 'sensible debate' about what makes organisations distinctive, writes our guest columnist

John Mohan
John Mohan

The fortunes of small and medium-sized charities have exercised the current House of Lords inquiry. For some, these are the bedrock of the sector, promoting innovation and responsiveness; for others, large scale is essential. But discussions are hampered by widely varying definitions. One academic article quotes a Charity Commission definition of "small" as having an income of less than £20k, and itself defines smallness as fewer than three staff - in other words, more than two-thirds of charities. Other recent work suggests an income range between £25k and £1m: the Small Charities Coalition refers to all charities below £1m, which is 97 per cent of registered charities.

The debate is often framed in income bands, as in the National Council for Voluntary Organisations' Civil Society Almanac. But these do not describe the charity population well. If a pound or two more moves an organisation from one band to another, does it really change its character? Organisations in income bands defined 10 years ago are not the same as those that are in them now. Compare like with like, using consistent sets of organisations over a time period, and you will find much less evidence of concentration than if you don't make such allowances.

Analyses that respond to these challenges have found no convincing evidence that large charities have accounted for a growing share of resources over time. There is evidence, on the other hand, that they have grown more rapidly than small ones. These organisations are not necessarily fishing in the same funding pool, so a narrative that large charities are squeezing out small ones needs further clarification.

We need a sensible debate about what is distinctive about particular sorts of organisations and their contributions. And financial growth might not be an aspiration anyway: many small and local organisations are probably content to remain that way. A debate so focused on aggregate economic indicators results in generalisations so broad as to be almost meaningless.

John Mohan is deputy director of the Third Sector Research Centre at Birmingham University

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