Room to breathe – the value of thinking space for small charities


Beth Clarke


I spend a lot of time listening to small charity CEOs as programme manager for CAF Resilience, a pilot initiative supporting ten charitable organisations to be more resilient. The aim is not only to support the ten participating, but also to learn more about the barriers and enablers to developing a more resilient charity and share these with the sector. The programme was initiated by a major UK philanthropist and also then funded by a group of philanthropic individuals, who see a vital role for smaller charities in social change. The organisations were assessed for their needs and given a tailored package of advisory expertise to address these, alongside grant funding to free up their capacity to engage. It is early days for the pilot but these are a few of our initial insights.

Small charities often don’t have targets or timeframes around their organisational development in the same way they would for projects. This makes a world of difference to prioritisation. The quotes below show the potential value of creating accountability for this, in the same way they would have to for a funded programme (as long as it is applied with an appropriate degree of flexibility).

‘When we do externally funded projects we’re brilliant and we ensure we plan and learn. But when it comes to work developing us as a charity it’s very different – it’s so unusual to get space to focus on ourselves.’

‘We tell the parents we work with that they need to look after themselves in order to do the best for their children but we don’t apply the same principles to ourselves.’

When combined with expert advice, funding directed to free up the time of senior staff with strategic roles makes a real difference. Expertise and advice is so valuable, but it has low value unless a charity has time to digest it, apply it, implement changes and embed new ways of working, all while bringing staff and stakeholders along with them. These crucial aspects of strategic leadership all take time and most small charities are in short supply of this vital resource. Funding areas that they identify as useful to create some ‘breathing space’ has paid off. Each charity makes the case for the help they need and it varies.

‘We’ve used the grants in a couple of ways to release capacity. It’s funding four people to do the certificate in fundraising and extra hours to enable them to put this into practice. This will mean I won’t be the only person who is confident to complete bids. It’s also being used for additional finance support so that I can delegate tasks, and a new full time receptionist/administrator. Previously we didn’t have a staff member to answer the door or the phone so it was common for all senior staff to be frequently interrupted by general enquiries and visitors. Its already making a difference and allowing us to focus on the important developmental questions.’

In a world where its easier to obtain funding to run projects and activities but it’s challenging to find the money for your core operations, charities tell us that they feel guilty about spending time on their own organisational development. Prioritising strategic planning and development can feel like a luxury and a waste of resources that could go to the frontline, particularly when funders are often wary of paying for core costs. There is a role here for philanthropists to recognise that charities need space to engage with complex organisational development issues and provide funds to provide senior staff time. No one benefits from inefficient organisations that don’t have a clear plan or working systems. If you trust a charity to deliver activities using your funds, why not consider asking them what organisational needs they have that you could fund them to address?

Beth Clarke is Programme Manager of the CAF Resilience Programme

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