Should small charity missions prioritise spread or depth?

Small organisations that have thrived during the pandemic may find themselves weighing up the choice of expanding services or keeping a local focus

Paul streets

This article first featured in Third Sector

We are acutely aware of the unsaid, but enormous, power differential that dominates the relationship between funder and funded.

It’s always a dilemma to consider what it is reasonable to ask of the small local organisations we support.

For that reason, we largely suspended charity visits during the Covid-19 pandemic, fearing that if we had asked to visit, charities would have said yes – even if they were concerned about the risks.

So now restrictions are lifting, it is a delight to be able to get out again.

I recently visited two terrific local charities in Dorset and Hampshire.

One focuses on supporting people who have experienced sexual violence. The other works with people experiencing homelessness, many of whom have also suffered some kind of trauma at some point in their lives.

Both charities would be deemed successful on anyone’s terms.

In spite of the rise in demand and complexity they have faced during the pandemic, they have not just coped but thrived in responding to the crises at their door.

Both have seen increases in support from local people and commissioners. Both have successful leadership teams.

And both now face the dilemma every charity has faced at some point in their lives: where do we go next?

Each charity’s response and thinking is quite different.

One believes they should consider expanding their services beyond their locality. One thinks they should focus locally in seeking to address some of the issues that drive demand to their door. Spread or depth?

There is no correct answer to that question, but it is a choice, because doing both simultaneously probably isn’t an option.

Each organisation will need to step back, rationally look at the strategic choices they face and make the call. A dilemma perhaps – but an enviable one to those who are just struggling to survive.

It helped me reflect on the question from my own experience running one of the largest national charities many years ago – Diabetes UK – and now running the Lloyds Bank Foundation, in touch with hundreds of small, local charities.

Perhaps the most influential report we have published at the foundation is The Value of Small in 2018, which was revisited in 2021 as The Value of Small in a Big Crisis to understand the role small charities played during the pandemic.

One of the chief executives I met mentioned how valuable it still was with local commissioners – because it had come from an independent funder.

Fundamentally, our belief is that small charities do things that larger charities, whatever their merits, struggle with.

But this is as much because they are local as it is because they are small. They are able to establish deep relationships with those they reach, rooted in a deep understanding and commitment to their localities.

These relationships extend in all directions – including to those in positions of power locally who they need to influence – who are often similarly committed to their locality and recognise like-minded people when they meet them.

It is hard to see how large national charities can replicate this, which is why federated organisations such as Mind, Age UK and Citizens Advice seek to bring the best of both together.

This brings me back to the strategic choice. Setting aside these specific charities, my view is that the better choice for most small and local charities will be to go deep and focus on what makes them distinctive as a local organisation connected to local people and places.

This puts them in a unique position to address and influence local issues that drive demand to their door, or the barriers that prevent people moving on in their lives, whether these are personal (coming to terms with trauma) or structural (local access to suitable accommodation).

Some of these issues and barriers will require national policy changes and approaches, which small charities individually are less able to address. But the key to effective strategic delivery is matching your USPs with need and opportunity.

The best way to address this is to work collectively through federated organisations, or national specialist umbrella bodies such as Rape Crisis or Homeless Link, which do an excellent job with scarce resources.

But given a choice, my first for small and local charities would always be to stay local and go deep.

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