by Tom Le Fanu

First published in Fundraising Magazine, April 2018

Opposite our offices there’s a row of small coffee shops. I’ve been into a couple and they’re pretty good. One sells a selection of locally roasted and ethically sourced beans. Another does a crumble muffin, which was a new one on me and very delicious.

Then at my station, there’s a Costa Coffee. There’s nothing wrong with it. The brand gives you a certain reassurance and you’re safe in the knowledge that you’ll be able to get your frappuccino with hazelnut syrup because they all do them.

There’s a time and a place for both local specialists and big brands. And so it is with charity, except in the world of giving we all drink Costa. Voluntary organisations with an annual income of £1m or more make up only 3% of the total number of charities but receive 80% of the sector’s total income (NCVO Civil Society Almanac 2017).

There is evidence that donors do feel more positive about buying local and donating to smaller organisations. Yet the staggering disparity in income shows they don’t.

So why not just ditch small charities altogether?

Small charities are born out of a need. Big charities just aren’t set up to deal with the range of challenges out there. Small charities are experts working in a specialist field, say programmes for young people with HIV or education through football (more below).

Too Small to Fail shows the independence of small charities and their situation within communities allows closer working with local volunteers and engagement of those hardest to reach.

At their best, small charities work quickly and responsively to needs without the bureaucratic hoops and political wrangling of larger organisations. Like Football Beyond Borders, who re-engage young people with education through their passion for football, they move things forward and innovate. You won't see that crumble muffin in Costa.

As well as delivering great impact, FBB make their beneficiaries the voice and heart of their organisation, something larger charities often talk about but don’t or can't always do. They also run a social enterprise alongside their programme work for additional funding. (Disclaimer FBB are a RYH supported charity)

As in many sectors, the big charities crowd out the smaller guys. They use their big marketing budgets to reach lots of people in a way that small charities can’t. And then there’s the additional issue of trust. Only 50% of people would say they trust charities (CAF UK Giving 2017) despite over 60% giving in the past year.

There is little doubt that small charities have been forced to operate in an atmosphere, which was exacerbated, if not caused directly by the aggressive marketing practices of a small number of bigger names. Which isn’t right.

How then can small charities strengthen their hand? Back in January, Prince William suggested charities need to do more to work together. He’s right about the pooling of knowledge and resources. The Small Charities Coalition run excellent mentoring programmes to share knowledge and experience between organisations with limited resource. Networks like Raise Your Hands exist not just to support small charities financially but also create a web of mutual support and shared resources. But more can be done in this area.

At Raise You Hands, our focus is small charities working with young people. Our members want to help kids but are looking for an alternative to supporting the big names. This creates a vertical within the small charity space is an attractive proposition for donors. It also allows us to focus on what we’re good at – raising funds and awareness – and gives the charities space to do their great work.

Ultimately though, it’s up to donors to keep an open mind. My local coffee shops can’t afford big advertising campaigns but it doesn’t mean they don’t do a great cup of coffee. A cup that Costa just couldn’t match. And that crumble muffin really is good.