What now for the sector minnows as the Small Charities Coalition winds down?

Rebecca Cooney finds out what impact the closure of the membership body will have on the more than 16,000 organisations it serves, and what it means for the wider sector

This piece has been amended. Please see final paragraph.

In December, the Small Charities Coalition announced it would close in the spring due to a lack of funding.

The umbrella body, which supports and represents charities with annual incomes of less than £1m, said in a statement that it had “exhausted all possibilities to secure funding that would have put the charity on a secure, sustainable financial footing”.

The charity was founded in 2008 by Patrick Cox and Directory of Social Change chief executive Debra Allcock Tyler.

Back then, Allcock Tyler says: “There was nowhere for small charities to go, no one place that was just for them – up until that point, I think all of us genuinely cared about small charities and most organisations offered services for them, but it wasn’t dedicated.”

In many ways, the SCC was one of the small but mighty charities that it has spent the past 14 years representing – it will close with just three members of staff, but more than 16,000 members on its books.

And ultimately its work, its support and its very existence will have a lasting impact on the small charity sector.

Duncan Shrubsole, director of policy, communications and research at the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales, which specialises in funding small charities (and funded the SCC itself), says: “I think the SCC can certainly leave with its heads held high. It’s done two things: provided a service, particularly for smaller, volunteer-led charities, but more generally it has shone a spotlight on small charities.

“A few years ago, the bigger infrastructure bodies didn’t really know what a small charity was and didn’t really have much interest in them, whereas now the infrastructure bodies all have much better understanding and are making sure they’re speaking up for them rather than defaulting to talking about large charities.”

Allcock Tyler agrees. “Small charities are on the agenda in a way they weren’t before and I don’t think you can undo that,” she says. But she still believes that a dedicated voice speaking up for small charities to the government and the sector is necessary – and will be sorely missed.

While small charities might punch above their weight in terms of impact, they are also subject to specific financial pressures. The SCC was no exception.

Shrubsole points out that it served some of the most hard-pressed organisations in the sector, and in order to do so kept its membership free of charge, cutting off one of the key sources of funding enjoyed by most other umbrella bodies.

Ultimately, he says: “Trustees have taken the responsible decision when they look at the financial situation going forward, and should be praised for their foresight. It means that they can do an orderly wind-up, which is always to the good, rather than things coming to a head and then having to suddenly shut the doors, which has happened in the charity sector in the past.”

So what will the impact of the organisation’s closure be on the voluntary groups it served? And who should fill the gap it leaves behind?

It’s a question that the SCC, along with other infrastructure bodies and funders such as the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, LBFEW, the DSC and others have been wrestling with.

An SSC spokesman told Third Sector the organisation “is starting work on a comprehensive evaluation and learning process”.

He said: “In time we look forward to sharing what we've learned about supporting small charities since 2008 and working with other infrastructure groups, funders and civil society to support them to embed this learning and secure a thriving future for small charities for decades to come.”

Maddy Desforges, chief executive of the local infrastructure body Navca, points out that the SCC’s key offering was practical support through its helpline when charities needed it most – particularly at the crunch points of starting out, expanding or closing down.

“Practically, it was a really important set of activities, support and resources they were building and were custodian of,” she says. “That work will need to be picked up elsewhere.”

Following discussions with other bodies and with Navca’s own members, Desforges says: “We’re thinking about how we can understand more who the SCC have been working with, and think about how we step into that space, what capacity and resources will be needed to do that.”

But, she says, there isn’t an easy or simple answer, and it’s likely that different elements of the work will be picked up in different places.

“There are many that will fall to Navca members because they’re the obvious point of call. But for some it will be the national bodies who can also step in and pick some of that up.”

Shrubsole highlights that one of the questions that needs to be answered is about why smaller organisations were looking to the SCC for support. While the conversations are ongoing, he says his gut feeling is that “some of this is about content of help and some of it is about tone and culture”.

“Some people from small charities are ringing SCC because they feel ‘They understand us – the clue’s in the name’, but is the help they are getting similar to what they could get from somewhere else?” he says.

It could be that some of the bigger organisations need to think about how to tailor their existing services to small charities, or simply make more of an effort to promote themselves to that market, so smaller organisations are more aware of them as a source of support, Shrubsole says.

There may also be a role for regulatory organisations such as the Charity Commission, he says, as early analysis suggests that some small charities were calling the helpline following a referral from the regulator.

“So if people who are doing accounts are being told to call the SCC even though it’s the Charity Commission’s own rules and guidance that they need help with, there’s certainly something that needs pursuing about what the commission’s role and responsibility is,” Shrubsole says – although he adds that it’s not yet clear how prevalent this issue is.

It will be a few more weeks before the complete picture emerges and it becomes clear whether there are any gaps that cannot be filled, he says.

While the coronavirus pandemic may have contributed to the financial pressures on the SCC, it may also have created the best possible circumstances for its closure.

The pandemic prompted an unprecedented level of collaboration between infrastructure bodies, opening communication channels and strengthening networks between them.

Both Desforges and Shrubsole point out this has meant the important conversations about SCC’s legacy have happened more quickly and easily than they might have in the past.

But Shrubsole says that finding funding for infrastructure bodies is tough, and those involved in discussions are “wisely nervous” about agreeing to take on the SCC’s full workload on limited resources without having thought it through.

And while the SCC had very particular financial constraints, such as its free membership policy, Desforges says its demise should prompt the sector as a whole – and wider society – to think closely about the value of its infrastructure bodies.

“There’s always pushback about how many infrastructure bodies we really need, but I think there is also a strength in the specialisms of those we have – they were set up for a reason, they have specific purposes and meet specific needs,” she says.

“We all need to step back and recognise the value of infrastructure support. It is the catalyst that allows other organisations to have their impact. If we lose these bodies, the impact won’t be immediate, it won’t be this month or the month after, but it will be incremental and it will be significant.”

The coming financial year will be key for the voluntary sector as it thinks about a longer-term recovery following the pandemic, Desforges says.

“For infrastructure bodies, particularly, we need to think about what’s our plan, what’s our strategy – not as individuals, but as a sector,” she says.

“It’s about the [part] an organisation plays in society – you can’t call on civil society in a pandemic if it’s not there in the first place, so [you] can’t just fund it in a pandemic, you have to do it long term.”

This piece has been amended to reflect Patrick Cox's role in founding the SCC.

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