Becca Bunce, Policy and Engagement Manager, Small Charities Coalition
Small charities are being pulled in all directions. The checklist of challenges can be overwhelming; increasing pressures on funding, increased paperwork, increased demand for services – all compounded by an uncertain future. Becca Bunce from the Small Charities Coalition has a plan: stop and put the kettle on.
When speaking to people running small charities, conversation naturally drifts to burn-out. Waking with a jolt at 3am, remembering a task that needs to be done, working extra hours to meet the needs of beneficiaries and concerned that you may not even be around in a few months’ time. So in writing top tips for small charities, this seems the logical start point.
It is not losing sight of the fundamentals of charity: governance, fundraising strategies, collaboration and beneficiaries needs are all important. But, it is difficult to make strategic decisions and take action when you are exhausted by a hostile external environment; concerned about the future support for your beneficiaries and lacking resource to get to the bottom of what may feel like a never ending to-do list.
As a small charity ourselves, the Small Charities Coalition we are aware of how difficult it can be to follow this advice – and we have to remind ourselves to take this advice. We also are aware that not everyone reading this will be from a small charity, but for creating a supportive environment that allows small charities to thrive.
So where to start?
When challenges are this big and there is this much uncertainty it is worth going back to the basics. Rest, headspace, connection to others and finding a supportive community are all seen as extras or ‘nice-to-have’. But these are fundamental needs as humans. We need to reassess our thinking about these in terms of business planning and acknowledge that rest, self-care and community-support are all strategic priorities.
- Have a cup of tea
- Reach out to a friend
- Get support
“I don’t have the time to stop” is a familiar refrain for many in the sector. I think we have all said that at some point. Yet, keeping going runs the risk of developing both decision-fatigue and compassion-fatigue.
Small charities across the UK are made up of passionate, hard-working and driven individuals, determined to make a difference. This passion and drive when pushed too far can also be the undoing of both individuals and organisations.
Resilience and sustainability of all organisations depends on the people in the organisation and the support around it. If people don’t have sufficient headspace and feel isolated in their work then it is easy for people to become overwhelmed by the responsibilities they face and take on within a small charity.
Pausing is not stopping completely. It is recognising that we are human, and for our brains to function well, we need to take breaks.
Have a cup of tea
Whilst having a break, can we suggest a cup of tea? The answers to everything are unlikely to be in tea leaves.
But whether it is having a cup of tea or stepping away from your desk – it is important to make sure you are looking after yourself.
For many small charities I imagine being told to take time for yourself would get an eye-roll and retort, “Where is the time?”
It’s a cliché to remind people that on an airplane we are instructed to put our oxygen mask on first before helping others. But it’s a good one. Small charities are often so focussed on beneficiaries’ needs that it is easy to lose sight of your own. A small break and stepping back can help give some often much needed perspective.
This is not ignoring that many organisations are in crisis mode. The loss of funding for small charities over the last five years has been particularly painful, from the loss of grants and small contracts, to increasing competition for trusts and foundation funding, or social investment not being appropriate and lack of awareness or appropriate platforms to drive individual giving.
It feels hard to justify a break to yourself, and feels more so to funders. But, continuing without a break is a threat to the sustainability of an organisation.
Even though it is difficult to carve out the time, looking after yourself is important and will also enable you to support your organisation and beneficiaries.
When you have made time for headspace, it is a good opportunity to…
Reach out to a friend
Small charities often tell us that they feel isolated and unsure where to turn. Peer-to-peer support is often vital for keeping you in the loop, whether about changes to charity law or new commissioning practices, or simply to remind you that you are doing ok.
Isolating yourself can feel tempting when there is so much to do, and meeting with someone can feel like another task on a never-ending to do list. But again, stepping away, getting a different perspective can help you see a problem more clearly and feel more supported to do your work.
Whilst small charities are facing many challenges, the key thing is that you don’t have to do this alone. Knowing which problem to solve, and in which order can be daunting. And this is where getting support is important.
Attending an event or making time for mentoring can seem frivolous or unjustifiable, given the lack of time, headspace and support. But stepping away, making connections and exploring the challenges is necessary to help with steering through difficult times.
Sometimes you will clearly know the support you need, but at Small Charities Coalition – along with other infrastructure and connecting organisations –knows that often identifying the problem is half the issue. If you don’t know what the problem is – or have identified the wrong one – it is unlikely that you are able to find a solution.
Don’t be afraid to seek support – or to take time to look what is out there.
Being a small charity ourselves and supporting thousands of small charities each year, we know there is room for improvement across all charities and that taking this time is difficult.
If you are looking for a quick start for support, then you can join Small Charities Coalition for free to access a range of services, from 1:1 mentoring, low-cost or free training, events, our helpline and our resources.
We’d also recommend CFG Small Charities Programme which is helping small charities skill-up on key finance issues. Or contact NAVCA to find out about your local CVS.
“This is all a really nice idea, but…”
…it still won’t solve all the external issues.
Coming back to the external environment, whether steering through Brexit or navigating commissioning – there are still challenges. We know they are difficult to overcome.
Part of our role at Small Charities Coalition is championing the work of small charities and making sure the brilliant people who work in these diverse organisation are valued by the wider system we sit in – whether the third sector, government or for-profit.
And just as you and your small charity are dedicated to ensuring communities are supported, we are working with others such as CFG to make sure that as we move into an uncertain future, we as a community support you.
Sometimes, the only way to start is to (briefly) stop.
*If you would like to raise a small charity issue please email firstname.lastname@example.org