Why small charities need philanthropists to realise their big ambitions


Lewis Garland


When we started Fences & Frontiers in 2017, inspired by the incredible grassroots groups coming out of the refugee camps in Europe at the time, we had a simple aim – to make our community a more welcoming place for refugees to rebuild their lives. What begun as a series of events in the basement of a local community café, soon saw us leading family trips to city farms, and hikes in the Chiltern hills.

Seven years on, we have a busy calendar of events and activities, ranging from artist led-walks to holidays in the Peak District, all aimed at giving refugees and asylum seekers a caring community, a respite from daily fears, and a sense of hope for their future.

Photo Credit: Ben Taylor

Our work has been featured in national newspapers and we’ve been shortlisted for prestigious awards, but the true value of our work is seen in the feedback we receive from our participants. As ‘G’, a participant from Honduras told us: Joining Fences & Frontiers helped me improve my mental Health and get to know different places in this country. Each walk helped me to clear my mind of the things that happened in my country and to trust people again’.

That we, as a team of friends and volunteers, have built something so impactful – from the ground up – gives me immense pride.

And yet, as I say these words I balk a little. I balk because I know there is a real danger in rose-tinting the term ‘volunteer led’.  The truth is, we’re not volunteer led for ideological reasons but because of our economic reality.  Staying afloat can be a real struggle.

As our services have expanded and membership has grown, so too has our need to professionalise. We’ve had to upskill our team, identify specialist software, and embed new policies and processes, all of which needs more capacity and resources.

‘Here is my rallying cry to all philanthropists: small charities need your support to realise their big ambitions’

We’re lucky to have a highly skilled volunteer team. But finding people with specialist skills willing to spend their spare time on financial reporting, funding applications, and data analysis is not easy.  Consequently, the bulk of extra work usually falls on the same people, leaving a number of us working upwards of 12 hours per week on top of our full-time jobs.  Working at this rate, with no foreseeable end, is unhealthy and unsustainable.

I’m acutely aware that the only way we are going to survive as an organisation long-term, let alone plan in any tangible way for the future, is by becoming an employer. But for us to do this we need to find sources of regular, reliable, unrestricted funding that far exceed the amount we have brought in to date.

The issue we face is not a lack of funding per se, but the type of funding available. Although there is a greater understanding of the need for core costs funding among grant making bodies and foundations than in the past, the vast majority of grant funding available is still restricted to project funding. Moreover, these awards often come with heavy monitoring requirements, piling more work on the same volunteers.

At present our only reliable, unrestricted funding comes from the monthly donations we receive through our fundraising platform. This, with the support of a couple of generous larger gifts and fundraisers, allows us to cover our current costs. However, this provides nowhere near the amount we’d need to solve our capacity issues.

In the search for solutions, I’ve spent much of the last year talking to other charity leaders about how they fund their central roles. In this time, what has become abundantly clear is that most of these charities have had significant backing from wealthy individuals. Some had wealthy founders or friends, some benefitted from legacy donations, and others were lucky enough to have found philanthropists who feel passionately about their cause.

In an ideal world, charities would not live or die on who they know. But then, in an ideal world most charities would not need to exist at all.  So, taking the world as it is, here is my rallying cry to all philanthropists: small charities need your support to realise their big ambitions.

For us, and perhaps thousands of small charities like us – finding a reliable funding source able to cover a wage for just a day or two per week would be transformational. This would let us move beyond a day-to-day survival footing, and instead focus on building the tapestry of therapeutic and integration services in our long-term vision. Who knows, it may even let us to breathe a little!

Of course, philanthropists give for very different reasons. There will always be people who choose to support big charities and global causes – and necessarily so.  Largescale humanitarian assistance programmes and medical research clearly need funding.  Equally there will always be people who get their thrills from fame-filled gala balls.

However, for those looking for more human, less transactional relationships with the causes they support, small charities provide a unique opportunity. Rather than being looked after by major gifts managers, philanthropists who support small charities are able to build direct relationships with those who run the charity day to day. This not only lets them see the difference their money is making first-hand, but also gives them a truer understanding of the charity’s obstacles and aspirations.

We all have a deeper connection with the things we’ve nurtured and helped blossom. It is this feeling that has often kept me, and my colleagues, burning the midnight oil. My hope would be that any philanthropist offering to help us though our growing pains, would also gain something of this parental pride.

Lewis Garland is the founder and CEO of Fences & Frontiers, a London based charity that provides cultural and nature-based activities for refugees and asylum seekers.

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uno online

Your contribution is very valuable, and I'm sure it will help many others besides me. Hopefully you will continue to write and share more great articles in the future.

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