Telling your story well: misconceptions, pitfalls and lessons for smaller charities

The Charity Commission’s Nigel Davies looks at how smaller charities can tell their story well in their trustees’ annual reports and accounts


Your trustees’ annual report and accounts say a lot about your charity. Written in the right spirit they are an opportunity to tell funders, donors, beneficiaries and others about what your charity is set up to do, what it achieved in the year, who you helped and how you helped them. We publish the reports and accounts of those registered charities with an income of over £25,000 online.

Common misconceptions:

No-one reads the report and accounts

It may be true no-one asks you for them directly but with the internet, they no longer need to do that. Annually we get 14m views of the register pages with 1m views of charity financial details and about 350,000 downloads of individual accounts. The Commission’s accountants also view the reports and accounts of about 1,000 charities each year.

They are only for the regulator

If this is your view you are unlikely to be reporting well. The public has a legal right to ask you to provide the last set of reports and accounts. It is about the stewardship of public money. Our polling of the public consistently shows one of the most significant drivers in public confidence is knowing how charities spend their money.

They are of no use to the charity itself

The report and accounts are not intended for internal management purposes. You can always provide the highlights for your AGM and those who are keen can then look further. The best charities make their reports and accounts available to their members, supporters, donors and beneficiaries on request at the AGM or online.

They are boring

Although the minimum contents of the trustees’ annual report are set it is your report to write. The accounts, especially SORP accounts, may be more rigid in their content but how you highlight key facts and figures in the report is in your gift.


Common pitfalls:

Get the basics right

Of charities with an income over £25,000 a quarter still don’t get the basics right. This rises to half for charities with incomes under £25,000. The basics include disclosing your charity’s purposes, reserves policy, public benefit, and ensuring the accounts add up.

File early, and definitely on time!

We find there is an association between late filing and underlying more serious governance issues in a charity.

Arrange the external scrutiny with sufficient time

Your independent examiner or auditor needs time to undertake their work. Those charities required to file with us have ten months to file after their year-end. Close off the year-end promptly and arrange the external scrutiny in good time.

Don’t assume the regulator won’t ask for them

Our work with smaller charities indicates that some are not preparing the required report and accounts. We do ask for them and so can the press and public.



Put the story part up front

The report should tell your charity’s story so start with it and then put the more administrative or unchanged information towards the back.

Think about your external audience

Think about what picture the report and accounts paint of your charity. Consider using graphics, pictures, and stories alongside the explanatory text and numbers.

Report on public benefit

Having read our guidance, your charity’s annual report is required to: explain what the charity is there to achieve (its purposes), explain what the charity has done during the year to carry out those purposes (its activities), and explain who benefits from the charity’s activities (the public benefit).

Write your own report

It is the trustees’ report and your independent examiner or auditor cannot write it for you. It is all too obvious when they do, as the text is largely unchanged from year to year, vague, and rather uninformative.

Tell the public how you spent your charity’s money

By doing this, you are playing your part in maintaining public trust and confidence in charities.


Further insights and support

This article draws on our annual reviews of random samples of charity accounts. To find out more about getting the basics right, including reporting well on public benefit do read these reports which are free to download:

For the required contents of the trustees’ annual report, filing and accounts scrutiny and preparation requirements read CC15d: Charity Reporting and Accounting:
For public benefit reporting read our guidance: Public benefit: reporting (PB3):
The Commission also publishes complete account template packs for charities that are designed for use by smaller charities


Nigel Davies, Head of Accountancy Services, Charity Commission

Independent examinations – the pain-free alternative to an audit

Don’t fear your Independent Examination says Community Accountant, Lisa-Jane Bradbury, they’re quicker and simpler than an audit, and can help you refine your accounting systems.


I have had several queries recently from charities who are under the impression that to successfully apply for funding or to present their accounts at their AGM etc, that their accounts need to be audited. When I inform them that their accounts may require an independent examination (IE) instead, there is usually a lot of head scratching and I usually hear “Well isn’t that the same thing?”

While legally your charity ‘may’ require external scrutiny of its accounts (depending on the charity’s gross income), don’t panic, as an IE will be considerably cheaper, quicker, and hopefully relatively pain-free, compared to a full-blown audit.

So, does your charity require an IE?

Not if you’re based in England or Wales and your gross income is less than £25k.

If your charity has a gross income of less than £1m (and if income exceeds £250k and gross assets do not exceed £3.26m) then you have the option of undergoing an IE rather than an audit. If income is over £250k then your IE must be carried out by a member of a recognised professional body. Even if your charity does not have a legal requirement to have accounts independently examined, having an independent examiner can only be a good thing as they will:

  • Review your accounts and the trustees’ report to ensure that they both comply with best practice and relevant accounting standards
  • Compare the accounts to the books and perform analytical procedures which are recorded
  • Write an independent report to be included within your accounts

In a nutshell, an IE involves a review of the charity’s accounting records and considers if there are any unusual items or necessary disclosures. Usually the Independent Examiner will not be poring over your accounts with a fine toothcomb, like an auditor would (there is a different level of “assurance” – an Auditor gives “reasonable” assurance whereas an Independent Examiner gives a “limited” assurance). There are rules set by the Charity Commission that the Independent Examiner must follow, though these are less prescriptive than those for an Auditor.

Even so, the charity must be prepared to provide additional information to the Independent Examiner, if required. Also bear in mind that when examining the accounts, the Independent Examiner is only required to confirm that there is no evidence to suggest that the charity has not done certain things, otherwise known as a “negative assurance” (which is legal speak for “no matter has come to my attention”).

Preparing for the independent examination is important and careful planning is key. The main considerations are:

  • To ensure that all accounting records are up-to-date and available.
  • To agree a timetable with the trustees to prepare the trustees’ report.
  • Ensuring that the examination takes place at a time when the trustees and key staff are available to answer any questions which may arise.

Also, be aware that an Independent Examiner will be performing an analytic review of your accounts. This means that they will they be looking at the numbers and the substance behind the numbers. To do that, the examiner will need an understanding of the charity and how it operates, so therefore it is imperative to have these records available:

  • The charity’s constitution
  • How the charity is organised
  • Details of the charity’s accounting systems
  • Details of the charity’s activities
  • The nature of its assets and liabilities
  • Minutes from trustee meetings and the AGM

Not only is it ultimately the trustees’ responsibility to ensure the provision of accounting records, but they are also responsible for the Trustees’ Report section in the accounts. Although an IE will not delve into the substance of the report, the Charities SORP (FRS102) requires that certain information is displayed in the accounts (such as the charity’s purposes and its main activities). An IE will generally only check that the relevant parts of the SORP have been addressed and that the information in the report is consistent with the accounts.

So, in a nutshell, don’t be afraid of an IE. In fact, why not embrace the opportunity to have an experienced and independent person guide you through the maze of rules and regulations of your accounts, whilst building confidence in among stakeholders. Who knows? A review of your accounting systems and procedures may be more beneficial to your charity than you envisaged!


VAST provides services and support to community groups, charities and social enterprises in Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire. For more information:


Lisa-Jane Bradbury, Community Accountant , VAST


Ten-point checklist for ensuring that your charity is fit for the future

For many small charities, income from grants is essential. But how can you improve your chance of being successful when it comes to applying for grants? Harriet Stranks, Director of Grant Making (North and Wales) from Lloyds Bank Foundation offers a ten-point health checklist to ensure that your charity stands out.


At Lloyds Bank Foundation we know just how challenging it is for small and medium-sized charities at the moment. Income is in decline whilst demand for services grows every day. We’ve identified ten areas for charities to focus on in building capacity, which will pay dividends in the long run and increase your ‘fundabilty’.

  1. Finance

Many charities sleepwalk into financial trouble because they do not have a solid understanding of their finances, and worry about the future when it’s too late. Having a robust understanding of finances helps charities spot and mitigate risks, and importantly. Reporting and discussing finances regularly means the charity can work together to address any risks and create contingencies. CFG’s training for small charities is a good place to start!

  1. Funding

Thinking about new ways of diversifying income and introducing new assets is very important. This might be through fundraising, having a mixed economy where some people are charged for services, regular giving schemes or trading for example.  There can be risks involved and this comes with a health warning as it needs careful planning, but charities that do not embrace new ways of raising funds will be left behind as more enterprising local charities fill the void.

  1. Digital Skills

Embracing digital fundraising and social media will be crucial to survive and thrive. Millennials see the world through a screen and if your charity doesn’t have a strong internet presence, optimised for mobile, you will deter a whole generation of potential support. Digital fundraising is increasingly important, and essential if you’re going to stay ahead. Lloyds Bank Foundation has links to free tools for charities on our website

  1. Competition and branding

Charities are in competition with each other, for funding, clients, reputation and employees. Whilst it is important to collaborate, charities also need to build competitive advantage. Everyone in the organisation should know the ‘elevator pitch’ and understand the unique selling point (USP) of the charity to create a unified brand with a clear direction.  Mapping competitors’ strengths will also help to spot your own charity’s weaknesses and identify areas for growth.

  1. Investing in staff

Many charities simply focus on training which complies with legislation or the basic competencies of a role. However, identifying and addressing skills gaps will help staff develop within their roles, provide stretch and motivation, support delegation and build credibility and trust. Training also helps with succession planning and transferable skills across roles. Training should be viewed as an investment, not a cost.

  1. Understanding your impact

Charities should not measure impact to report back to funders, it should be to understand the user experience and to improve services. Investing in a database will transform a charity from one that thinks that they do well to one that knows it does well – and can prove it. Reflective learning from results is critical.

  1. Networking and leadership

Charity leaders need external sources of support and like-minded people to talk to. This might be through formal networks, mentoring or action learning sets. The external validation of ideas builds confidence to act, reduces isolation, raises ambition and promotes strategic thinking. Without active leadership a charity cannot become stronger.

  1. Building trust locally

Building trust within the community brings its own rewards in referrals, reputation and funding. Being consistent and building relationships with clients creates longer lasting impact and transition to lasting change. Using local volunteers builds a skilled future workforce and enhances social capital in the local community.

  1. Strategic thinking

Investing in awaydays, agreeing your mission, values and annual operational plan helps staff and trustees align in one clear direction. It also affirms confidence in the leadership and motivation in the team. Recognising and celebrating successes makes people feel valued and looking ahead supports aspiration to grow and become stronger.

  1. Support trustees

Appreciate trustees by providing training and opportunities for engagement. Prepare well for board meetings and give assurance that the organisation is being well-run by providing transparent management information and regular reports.  Appoint trustees for a fixed term and induct new trustees well. Good trustees will act as ambassadors and champions of the charity, thus enhancing the reputation and brand.


Harriet Stranks, Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales


From a start-up at a desk in a disused barn, to a thriving theatre company raising arts engagement in its community – Full House co-Creative Director Harriet Hardie on how good financial management can be transformational. 


In 2011 I, and my fellow Royal Central School for Speech and Drama graduate Ben Miles set up Full House Theatre with the core vision ‘for every child to hold treasured memories of theatre’. We create, programme and develop theatre and performance projects for, by and with children and young people, working across communities in Bedfordshire.

In our early days, when the company was just the two of us, our office space consisted of a farm building in rural Bedfordshire, which was freezing cold in the winter and use of the facilities involved a trek across a working farm yard. Our turnover in 2002 was a little over £9,000. We moved on to a small serviced office – funded by Bedford Borough Council – in 2009 and the following year we were joined by our administrator Sophie. In the years since then we’ve set up our more permanent home in a lovely office in Ampthill, and have a team of four additional permanent staff supporting our work. We changed our legal entity to become a Charitable Incorporated Organisation earlier this year and our 2015/16 our turnover was just over £227,000.

Coming from an arts rather than a financial background, and without resources to employ a finance officer in the early days, my approach to financial planning and management is to some extent self-taught.  I’ve learnt so much in the last 15 years, not least because of the support of our Board of Trustees, which has a really broad range of cross-sector experience. We’re a project-funded organisation and so a robust and rigorous financial track record has been instrumental in gaining funding from a variety of local authority funding sources, trusts, foundations, NHS and charities. We secured our first Arts Council England funding in 2010 and have been successful in receiving further Grants for The Arts in 2013, 2015 and 2016. In 2016 we were successful with our largest funding application yet: an Arts Council England Strategic Touring project. This increasing support from Arts Council England as well as other sources of funding has enabled us in recent years to leverage funding from other well-known large grant providers such as Children in Need and the Heritage Lottery Fund. As a small charity we’re adept at making a little go a long way and getting great value for money and in the last few years we’ve been able to patchwork fund our projects and start to see greater financial stability.

I still lead on our funding applications but now have a team to support this, from researching facts and figures to liaising with our graphic designer on the attachments needed, enabling me to concentrate on the all-important wording and budgets. In terms of company financial administration, I still manage the company finances but I now have a General Manager to help with payroll, an administrator to help with inputting and filing, and an accountant who comes in once a month to reconcile everything. We’re working towards building our reserves, as with higher turnover comes higher risk. For the first time this year our business planning will also include compiling a risk register for our organisation, much of which is financial.

Time and experience has helped me to learn as I’ve gone along but I am thorough and my attention to detail serves me well in ensuring that I am able to manage our budgets successfully.


Elves and the Shoemaker, Full House Theatre ©

Don’t bump along the bottom – thrive!

Simple but effective skills in financial management aren’t the preserve of big business. However small your charity, an understanding of finance can reap big rewards. Caron Bradshaw tells the story of her first foray into governance and how a focus on finance helped transform a failing pre-school.


Many years ago I took up my first trustee role as Chair of our local pre-school.  I was willing, values-driven and reasonably able.  I also knew the role came with legal responsibilities.  But if I am honest, I had no real idea of what I was getting myself into!  Contrast my sentiments with those of my co-trustees. The majority probably felt they were there under duress – many didn’t even realise they were trustees at first – they just knew if they hadn’t stepped forward to run the ‘committee’ the pre-school was likely to close for business after the school holidays.  My fellow trustees were anything but unintelligent, but, like many similar boards, they didn’t have any formal financial training or skills, and knew nothing about being a charity trustee.

What the board inherited was, I suspect, consistent with the experiences of many other new boards.  The pre-school’s previous committee had no real handle on its finances.  They did not even realise that they were expected to file accounts with the charity commission – they had enquired at a time when this wasn’t compulsory, but it hadn’t occurred to them to check again. They employed staff, but didn’t have a clue about their tax position (creating a major NIC problem for themselves – a story for another time). They had no idea how many children might join in  future terms, how much rent they might need to pay for the space, how much fundraising they needed to do, or how many staff they would have to employ. They lived entirely hand-to-mouth in the present moment and often threw themselves at the mercy of the parents of the children in their care when times got tough.

When I became Chair, I already understood that financial information is powerful and that accounting was less about compliance and more about effective management; a view acquired during my day job at the ICAEW.  This conviction was unequivocally proven during my tenure as trustee.  I had to convince my fellow trustees that we needed to improve our financial skills and in doing so I encountered some resistance. People felt that perhaps it was a ‘nice to have’ or the thing you do in a business rather than a small, local, charitable pre-school. But I persevered.

And it was worth it. Within a short period of time our pre-school went from failing to thriving.  We even secured a £250k grant from our local authority to construct a purpose-built home for our charity in the grounds of the local school.  Tackling our lack of financial skills played a major part and unleashed our ability to think ahead, plan, articulate a convincing business case for funding from the council, and helped us be clear to our supporters how much we needed to fundraise (and what they got for their money).

Helping small charities gain financial skills makes a difference.  I have seen how essential they are and how they can be transformational.  So all these years later I am delighted to be helping CFG actively supporting small charities.


Caron Bradshaw, CEO, Charity Finance Group


Getting auto-enrolment right for your charity and employees: choosing the right pension scheme

With auto-enrolment staging dates looming for small charities, CFG’s Anjelica Finnegan is here to help, looking at what you need to consider and the guidance available.

Hopefully you already know that if you employ staff you will have a legal obligation to provide a workplace pension. If you are unsure about whether or not auto-enrolment will apply to your charity, the Pensions Regulator (TPR) has a very accessible duties checker which you should look at straight away.


Getting the right scheme for your charity

You may already have a scheme for your staff. If you want to use your existing scheme, then it’s important that you check with the provider that it meets the automatic enrolment rules – not all do.

If you need to choose a new scheme, then you’ll need to find out which ones are available to you, and how to choose between them. Don’t simply go for the first scheme that you find. Shop around before you decide which one is the most suitable for your charity and your staff.

Top five things to think about are:

 1. Will a scheme accept all your staff?

Some small charities have struggled to find a pension scheme that will accept their staff. If you are having a similar problem, TPR has a helpful list on their website of pension providers that are willing to take on small employers.

2.  Is the scheme compatible with your payroll?

If you use payroll software, ask the payroll provider whether it’s suitable for automatic enrolment and whether it’ll work with your preferred pension scheme.

3. Does your scheme apply appropriate tax relief arrangements?

Different schemes apply different tax relief arrangements – relief at source, or net pay arrangement. If you have staff that don’t pay income tax, it’s important to check that the scheme uses ‘relief at source’ as they would still get tax relief from the government. However, some schemes using other tax relief arrangements may have lower member charges. Consider carefully what is right for your employees.

For more information about tax relief in pension schemes visit TPR’s website:

4. Do the scheme’s investment options suit your charity and staff?

Any scheme that you use for auto-enrolment must have a ‘default investment arrangement’. This is what your staff’s contributions will be put into, as they cannot choose their own investments when automatically enrolled (but they can make a choice after). Charges paid out of member savings in default investment arrangements must be not exceed 0.75% a year of the member’s fund.

You may also need to consider whether the scheme offers investment options that suit the particular needs of your organisation and staff. For example, you may want to consider ethical investment options that match your organisation’s charitable objectives.

5. What are the costs?

It’s important that you know what administrative features your pension scheme offers so that you can weigh up costs and charges against the level of services offered. Some services may make automatic enrolment easier for you over the long term.

Once you have a scheme, know who is doing what

Completing a declaration of compliance is one of a number of tasks to do as part of your automatic enrolment duties. Failure to complete and submit to The Pensions Regulator could result in a fine.

One of the reasons given by employers for missing their declaration of compliance deadline is that they thought somebody else was completing this on their behalf. It is the employer’s legal responsibility to comply with automatic enrolment. You should know when your declaration of compliance deadline is, and ensure that it is completed on time.

So, if you are using payroll bureau, make sure you clearly agree whether they or you will be declaring compliance. CFG’s small charities’ auto-enrolment guide  covers this in more depth.

You need to write to your staff individually to explain how automatic enrolment applies to them, including how tax relief works. Some schemes may offer to do this for you. If not, TPR has letter templates which you can use.

Where can you get some guidance?

CFG published a guide to auto-enrolment especially for small charities. This free guide takes you through the process from the start and is available to download from the CFG website.

TPR provides CFG with monthly auto-enrolment updates. We tailor these for charities and post them on our blog. Ensure that you keep up-to-date by subscribing:


Anjelica Finnegan, Policy and Research Manager, CFG


Key considerations for small charities

As the sector gears up for 2017, Finance and Accounting Consultant Andy Nash, who specialises in charities and non-profits, sets out his priorities for small charities in the year ahead.

In what has been a challenging few years for charities, it has been smaller charities that have on the whole taken the hit. 2016’s Civil Society Almanac clearly shows that growth in overall income across the sector has been within a few large charities, at the expense of smaller charities. As someone who is passionate about the role of small charities which are often closer to the beneficiaries and more agile, here are my top tips and considerations for the year ahead.


Keep income diversification simple

One of the biggest challenges I see with clients is that their income is all focused around one stream, mainly grants and foundations which are becoming increasingly more competitive. Diversifying doesn’t necessarily require using complex and expensive strategies around selling your services to local authorities, although this may be one option. Simple things such as making sure donors can give online or via standing order, or even approaching local businesses are low-cost easy ways to at least start that diversification process. As a smaller charity you can connect with your local community on a totally different level.


Avoid mission drift

As the competition for grant funding increases more charities are trying to fit their objectives around an application, rather than selling their own objectives to funders, with the charities realising two years later that they are no longer meeting their core purpose. This has two outcomes. Firstly the funders see straight through it and in addition to failing at the first stage, you jeopardise future opportunities, even if they may be more relevant. Secondly, you alienate your key supporters as they no longer feel they are supporting your original objectives – don’t let larger funders push you in a direction that is not right for you.


Make your accounts sing!

As the media and public scrutiny of charities increases, your accounts can and should become one of your biggest assets. Regardless of the challenges of implementing the new SORP, especially for smaller charities, this is an opportunity for you to sing about your achievements, show how efficient you are, and most importantly the impact donations have had on your beneficiaries. Small charities can’t afford to spend thousands on glossy publicity, but your accounts should tell your story – don’t just use them as a legal requirement that must be met, and find an accountant who will help you tell that story.


Get the right ongoing support

With new regulations coming out on what feels like a weekly basis on an ever-increasing breadth of topics, and another imminent revision of the Charity SORP, it’s incredibly hard for a small team, often without a qualified accountant, to keep up. Therefore make sure you get the right support. As hard as it seems to find them, have an accountant as your treasurer and ensure they stay up to date with charity regulations – there are multiple free recruitment channels, including the ICAEW Volunteer site and CFG. If outsourcing your finance function, make sure it’s to someone who understands charities. Any other company would look for a sector specialist and you should be no different.


Use a good independent examiner

The same principle should apply to your independent examination. A recent review of accounts we completed for charities in our local area, showed an alarming number of those below £500,000 income who had received a clean independent examination but were not in line with the latest SORP. Don’t just go for the pro-bono option – a good independent examination should provide an annual health-check for your organisation and be an opportunity for you to make sure your financial controls are fit for purpose and help your trustees reduce the risk of fraud.


Remember your staff are your biggest asset

The ongoing pension auto-enrolment process is being seen as a chore and yet another drain on resources by most charities, yet it is a real opportunity to review the way you recognise the contribution your staff – without them you would be stuck! It’s far easier to get grant funders to cover pension contributions and other benefits, than wider overheads so this as an opportunity to say thank-you to your staff, it’s not just another box-ticking exercise.


And finally – don’t obsess about Brexit!

Without doubt there will be an impact on charities over the next months and years as the UK starts to extradite itself from the EU. What form that will take is almost impossible to tell at the moment, yet it is the key question I get asked by clients. Until we know this there is little we can do, so let’s monitor the situation and focus on what we can control!


Andy Nash, Andy Nash Accounting & Consultancy



Financial Management – what does it mean for small charities?

The Small Charities Coalition (SCC) has helped CFG develop and promote the Small Charities Programme. SCC’s Felicity Christensen explores how small charities can beat a path to effective financial management.

What do you call a small charity that’s strapped for time? Normal! As is the case with many aspects of running a small charity, good financial management is one part that can prove tricky to master, given the technical expertise often required and how stretched staff, trustees and volunteers are. The nature of running a small charity often means a very small team of dedicated people who wear many hats and take the reins on a variety of areas.

However time-strapped we all are, it’s vital for the sustainability and prosperity of a small charity, where budgets are tight and margins very small, that time is taken to make sure their finances are in order and the necessary processes are in place to meet the regulatory requirements.


What should we as small charities do to be financially savvy?

The saying goes that knowledge is power, and small charity staff and volunteers can really benefit from taking advantage of what’s out there to upskill themselves on how best to implement good financial practice and stay on top of the latest regulations that affect them.


  1. Training and resources

At Small Charities Coalition we offer a range of finance support and our accounts and finance resource page received over 10,000 visits within the last year that hopefully has benefited the charities accessing it. We are really pleased to support the Small Charities Programme that CFG is rolling out which includes training to help with budgets and forecasting, and tackling the complex creature that is Gift Aid – all hugely valuable and necessary.

We see and hear the need for support in these areas so it’s great that CFG is meeting these needs and providing quality training and resources to create financially savvy, stronger small charities. Small charities are often time-starved and in need of accessible, rapid help such as this.


  1. Consider taking on a volunteer

If having a paid professional accountant on board is a mere castle in the sky as is commonly the case for small charities, you might want to recruit an experienced volunteer that can dedicate time solely to keeping your charity finances in check.

One of the benefits of actively recruiting to diversify the skill set of your board of trustees is that you can again find those that have the experience to offer what your organisation needs. Our volunteer recruitment resource lists several places where you can recruit trustees and volunteers totally free of charge.

In short, if you don’t know how or are struggling to do it on your own, find a person that can!


What can the sector do to help?

Regulating organisations need to be supportive and accommodating for the challenges that small charities face because of their size and resources, compared to the larger ones. Given that 97% of the sector is ‘small’ (has an annual income of under £1m) it would make sense that the processes are designed with the smallest in mind and then scaled up, rather than the other way around. Processes could be improved by being proportional, simple and supportive for small charities, enabling them to be able to comply properly, i.e. returning annual reports on time to the Charity Commission and registering with HMRC.

The sector need to recognise how busy and time-strapped small charities really are and communicate in ways that recognise this, such as condensing information down to one page overviews rather than a ten page document. The CFG Small Charities Programme is one example of how training and resources can be made with small charities needs in mind.


Felicity Christensen, Communications & Events Manager, Small Charities Coalition


What we hear from small charities on the helpline

One of the key services the Small Charities Coalition provides is a helpline. John Barrett, SCC’s Chief Executive explores some of the current financial issues facing its members.

The Small Charities Coalition (SCC) was created by small charities to respond to the need for free, accessible and sustainable support. Now a coalition of over 7,650 members, our mission is to champion the role of all small charities to ensure they are strong, well-equipped, confident and valued for the positive contribution they make to society.

We have partnered with CFG to help deliver their Small Charities Programme throughout 2016 and 2017, enabling these small but vital organisations to strengthen their monetary capabilities and build on their sustainability. Right now, more than ever, we all need to be on top of our accounts given the big financial challenges our members are facing.

One of the key areas of support we offer comes via our information, help and advice services that deliver free support and information to small charities that are experiencing difficulties in their work. If the team is unable to directly answer queries they will signpost members to other relevant organisations and resources that can offer more specific guidance.


Requests for financial advice

Some of the questions we hear frequently around the financial aspects of running a charity include how to register with HMRC, writing and submitting end-of-year reports to the Charity Commission, recruiting treasurers to boards of small charities and (particularly over the past year) tackling the auto-enrolment process.

There is a very real need for these processes to be designed in a way that enables small charities to be able to practically keep their finances in check, given the limited time and often limited resources they commonly have.

The helpline that we run gives us invaluable insight and data on the issues facing small charities, which we can then feed into our policy work to represent the needs of small charities on a national scale. This also helps us to focus on continual improvement of our services for members.


The need in numbers

Over the past 12 months our free information, help and advice services have responded to 835 queries.  As a result we have uploaded 21 new resources and updated 35 existing resources in our library of online guides, tools, templates and useful services. These resources that are readily available on our website allow small charities to resolve issues they may be facing.

The increasing demand for advice and the growing trend for the closure of free helplines due to limited resources mean that we continue to be an important go-to organisation for small charity queries.

“Thanks for the rapid response and clear advice. You have no idea how hard it has been to get an answer to that simple question!! I’m already glad I’ve joined your coalition.”

South Parade Trust


Training and resources

Due to the number of finance-related queries we receive from small charities we are really pleased to have partnered CFG on the Small Charity Programme. It is essential for us to be able to signpost members to practical and relevant support such as this, which provides free finance-focussed resources and affordable finance training.

For more information on the Small Charities Coalition:


John Barrett, CEO, Small Charities Coalition


Finances for the terrified?

I work with about 120 voluntary and community groups a year across Bournemouth offering one to one advice and support. Most groups will be very small and three quarters will have an annual income of less than £100,000. I get asked about a lot of things but not very often about financial record keeping and reporting. However if I go into groups for many finances are a thing of terror to be offloaded to a ‘treasurer’ or even outsourced. Many charity trustees complain about not understanding financial reports or seem ‘not bothered’. If a charity is lucky enough to have a treasurer a significant number either feel very unskilled or too confident and so fail to follow legal and good practice (including those who come from a private sector background!). For a number of years I’ve run a ‘Looking After the Money’ course as an introduction to financial management and get new time treasurers and old lags, and a sprinkling of non-financial staff and trustees. The training always goes down well but I know that the people who really need it don’t come because they don’t realise they need it or could benefit from it.

Part of the problem, I think, is that there is little incentive to get it right! The Charity Commission, even if charities have to send in accounts and reports don’t look at them (and probably won’t even if they start charging for the privilege!), many funders don’t look to see if annual accounts are ‘compliant’. I even see chartered accountants producing, or signing off on, accounts that in no way meet legal minimums. If there was a bit more challenge from regulators and professionals it would soon get around that you need to tighten up on your financial systems.

But a stick is not good enough on its own. So where can groups go for advice and support? The most common answer now a days is the web. As with any search you need to know what you’re searching for and many groups will not. If they find useful material (and there is a lot out there!) the trouble is interpreting it for their own group. Training courses do allow for more tailored support and a certain amount of one to one interaction. CFG’s Small Charities Programme is a fantastic opportunity for many groups and will certainly meet some of the needs here in Bournemouth. However each charity has a unique context and needs someone with the skills to translate and adapt general advice to create workable and pragmatic solutions. Some organisations will find that ‘expertise’ from within (amongst their trustees, volunteers or staff), however many will not. There needs to be someone ‘on tap’ to help a charity develop good practice. Luckily there are still CVSs, other locally based ‘umbrella’ groups and Community Accountancy projects that can provide it. But these highly affordable (even free!) and cost effective services are under increasing threat that will mean that many small, and the vast majority of, charities will be left to survive their night terrors alone!

Steve Place
Senior Advisor
Bournemouth CVS