Stella Smith: Bigger is not always better

Scope's announcement that it is downsizing shows that charities really are not like commercial organisations, writes our columnist

Stella Smith
Stella Smith

When I hear of a charity downsizing, my heart usually sinks. It’s inevitably accompanied by depressing news about austerity, the impact on service users and redundancies. So when I heard that Scope was planning to cut two-thirds of its staff, I assumed this was in response to external challenges, that these changes were being foisted on the organisation and the drastic restructuring was the management response. How refreshing then to read that, far from being pushed into downsizing, Scope has proactively decided to reduce its headcount and divest services because it believes this is the best way to achieve its purpose. This is a bold strategy that, if successful, will shatter a few of our long-held sector myths.

The first of these myths is that bigger is better. At some point the charity sector became seduced by the corporate business mantra that the more money you have, the more successful you are. In a commercial business, where the purchaser often is (or has a relationship with) the end user, you can make an assumption that the more people buy, the more they want or need what you’re selling.

This logic does not translate to the charity environment where, by and large, the people who fund charities are not the same as the beneficiaries. Despite our best efforts at demonstrating impact, the fact remains that a charity’s size or turnover is indicative of its ability to win contracts and raise funds. Our financial position does not correlate to the effectiveness or need for our work. In the charity sector, bigger does not equate to better.

Scope has announced that it will not provide government-contracted services, but only those that provide "a demonstration of its policies in practice". This strikes at the heart of another myth: that providing contracted services doesn’t affect our ability to be innovative and challenging. When an organisation provides contracted services, the desire to maintain the contract often supersedes the desire to be independent, especially if that contract is financially significant to the organisation.

Scope is also getting to grips with technology of which we, as a sector, are still struggling to grasp the potential. Mobile technology, social media and access to the internet continue to be game-changers for just about every other industry: from estate agency and journalism to shopping, they have all been hugely affected. It is the same for charities, and the sooner they embrace and exploit the potential of technology the better.

However, perhaps the most fundamental assumption that Scope is challenging is the belief that charities in their existing form will be around for the foreseeable future. Painful though it is to think that we might not always be relevant, we need to keep asking ourselves if how we are operating is the best way to achieve our purposes. We also need to get better at talking about exit strategies and at what point we close down or withdraw from providing some services.

It won’t be plain sailing for Scope. Undoubtedly, it will have misjudged some aspects and will face resistance: such a massive change cannot happen without some turmoil. But putting aside the inevitable difficulties, one has to admire any organisation that bravely refutes established practice, believes there is a better way of doing things and puts its money where its mouth is. After all, isn’t that what the charity sector is all about?

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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