big versus small: charities

The small is displaced by the large, day after day: the smaller hill farm by the larger; the market store by the supermarket; the community by the district hospital. The same story has been repeated over the last fifteen years with thousands of schools and post-offices, dairy farms and pubs. And it is about to happen to our Cumbrian charities.

More people are involved in voluntary activity in Penrith and the Border than almost any other constituency in Britain. In the last few weeks, I have seen Eden Valley Hospice, Greystoke’s Sunbeams Music Trust, Wigton’s Chrysalis, Bewcastle’s Low Luckens farm, Brampton’s community trust, Carlisle’s Eden Valley Hospice,  Heathland’s Glenmore Trust, and the Appleby Heritage Centre. One consists of a husband and wife and 27 acres; another has four hundred volunteers. One receives half its funding from the government; another raises £7,000 pounds of private donations a week. One is in a purpose-built building with bright modern furniture, another in a set of railway carriages. They deal with everything from eight year olds to eighty year olds; housing to health. But each was born in Cumbria; and all still bear the mark of their origin as a tiny charity, and their founders’ desire to meet a particular Cumbrian need.

Hospice at Home was created by four people who realised that 80 per cent of the people who died in hospital would rather die at home. It has managed all the tumult of NHS reforms, all the risks of growth, and all the funding crises, to now serve hundreds of patients a year, with over ten thousand hours of care. It has staged grand fundraising events (I still haven’t lived down dancing with 150 Santas in Penrith) and it has been honoured with medals at Buckingham palace. But its stall is still at the Skelton Show, and Fiona, who was a founder fifteen years ago, still works there now. Each organisation’s overheads are low and their staff are effective and experienced. But they cannot afford permanent staff for writing grant applications, and they are rarely financially secure.

Now giant ‘third-sector organisations’ are competing against them. These big national charities have strengths (professional management, economies of scale, skills and good track records) but this is not why they consistently win contracts: they generally win because they are richer and more powerful. They have revenues of hundreds of millions of pounds a year: a hundred times the size of the largest Cumbrian charities. Some have more than a hundred people just in their fundraising and ‘development’ teams. And they know how to promote themselves: this week there were ten events organised by big national charities in Parliament, with celebrity guests, videos, and pink-iced cakes. Yesterday, I was presenting an award at a London ceremony for charities that had so many glamorous assistants, spotlights, sport-stars, and tracks of ethnic drumming, that I thought I was at an American ballgame.

But it is not the cakes which make big charities so appealing to foundations and government: it is that they feed our new obsessions with ‘professionalism’, ‘accountability’, ‘risk-assessment’, and ‘sustainability’: all of which often come down to ‘size’. Contracts are increasing in scale. Application forms demand elaborate strategies, and needs assessments. Insurance costs are rocketing (as even Crosby Ravensworth Village Fair is finding to its cost). Compliance favours the most exhaustive monitoring and documentation. The most straightforward act of neighbourliness now requires a training course.

How much easier, therefore, to give the contract to a national charity, with its financial base, sophisticated reporting systems, right qualifications and right words. But often how much worse for the ‘service-users’: because in many charities, local knowledge, leadership and flexibility are more important than a complex national template. What matters are not strategic plans but human relationships; not qualifications but compassion and understanding. If Eden Mencap – with no national support system – loses its grant to a big national provider what will that mean for my friend in Penrith? He has learning difficulties but does not receive government support. Will the national sit down with him, as Eden Mencap does almost every week, to talk, or gently to unpick the hundreds of pounds’ debt he has run up on his Argos card? Would they process him if he were not funded as part of a government contract? Would they even keep the office on the high street, so he could find them? And would they have known him for twenty years?

I am now working with Cumbria Voluntary Service to bring small local charities together with donors. The hope is to create simpler processes and more manageable contracts, which reward local knowledge and experience, rather than hyper-polished proposals. I’ve asked Whitehall for ideas on how officers can adapt the procurement regulations. But the big national charities can also help by showing more sensitivity.

Some already do. Last week, I was at the wonderful new Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie House with the Director of the British Museum. The British Museum, like the Liverpool Tate gallery, could have set up a “BM North”. They have the money, reputation and the masterpieces to succeed and take visitors and funding away from local museums. Instead, they have chosen to lend their treasures to Tullie, and work with their curators to build on what is already there. I hope more of the great national charities will follow their example.



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