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February 5, 2018

Challenges for Small Charities

In the first of two interviews, fundraising consultant, Julia Worthington, discusses the challenges facing small charities.

Julia Worthington has been a fundraiser for over 17 years and now runs her own consultancy. Operating in a number of positions for a variety of organisations, including as a fundraising volunteer for National Childbirth Trust, a sole fundraiser for The Railway Children and for The Prince's Trust. Julia is also a Trustee of an Academy High School.

Julia's experience has built up an extensive range of expertise and knowledge, as well as understanding of exactly how not-for-profit organisations work and the importance of great relationships with the supporters of your organisation, whether they are donors, volunteers or clients.

What are the unique challenges for CEOs of small charities?

I work with a lot of charities through the Lloyds Foundation; some of them as small as £250k turnover. The main thing is resource. I appreciate that bigger charities are under pressure as well, but as CEO of a small charity you have to do absolutely everything. I was sat in a meeting with one particular guy when his phone went; he rooted in his drawer, got out a toolbox and went to fix a leaky toilet! Whatever needed doing had to be done quickly and there was no one else to do it; he didn't have facilities management on site.

There is so much to think about: compliance, GDPR, recruitment, staff management, writing your own grant applications. CEOs of small charities have so many different things pulling them in different directions, which makes it really difficult to plan long-term.

For aspiring CEOs of small charities, what are the key attributes and skills it takes to be successful?

It's a bit like being a GP or a General Practitioner. You need to do a bit of everything and be very good at spinning multiple plates. Being a generalist is a vastly undervalued skill. You meet many people who can't do that and can only focus on one area at any one time. Having the breadth and depth to be analytical as well as a people person; being strategically minded and able to deliver operationally.

For some CEOs of small charities, the challenge can be that the only way to achieve is to be very controlling and that doesn't work well for the team. It needs to be a careful balance between knowing what's going on, but empowering your team to get on with it. They need to feel that the Chief Exec has got their back, whilst also being able to make some mistakes because that's how we all learn. I have seen a couple of CEOs where that is a real issue for them and they just can't relinquish control.

Also, having trustees who are prepared to take some calculated risks is absolutely essential for small charities. If you have completely risk-adverse trustees, both you and they will both be stuck with no possible way to move forward.

Find a mentor, someone who has been there and done it, the IoF offers mentoring through their buddying scheme, and its free. People like me offer coaching and mentoring, coaching can be helpful as it challenges the individual as opposed to mentoring where the mentor offers their experience, it's a subtle difference but can mean profound changes to the way you think and work.

How can small charities futureproof in an ever changing charity landscape?

It is actually really difficult to futureproof. Thinking about Brexit, 18 months ago people would have said it won't happen. Then when it did happen, could anyone have predicted what that meant with the fall in the pound? How that would affect the confidence that businesses have, which affects our fundraising? There are so many different aspects to consider.

What works in all circumstances is good governance, alongside trustees with a variety of skills. These are the cornerstones and foundations from which everything else grows. There needs to be a proper skills audit so you know what you need. One aspect of good governance is having terms of reference for your trustees, which in turn means your trustees are with the charity for a fixed term and then move on, this way you always have fresh ideas, views and skills. This one small change can make a huge difference.

There needs to be a business strategy to ensure you know where you are going. Again, that can be difficult because we measure our fundraising on a year's performance. Dan Pallotta (TEDEx speaker and fundraising expert) often says that we are working with one hand tied behind our back, and I would agree with that. If you look at businesses, they work on 3-5 year plans and can operate at a loss for the first couple of years, providing they turn a profit by the third. We have to turn a profit on day 1 so that we can pay our staff and help our beneficiaries. The way we are judged is very different to the commercial world, which is why a robust business plan is even more important so that you know where you are aiming to be in 3 and 5 years' time.

Review the plan regularly in light of Brexit or cutbacks by the local authority. Have diverse income streams and don't just rely on one income source. Lots of charities have been caught short by funding cuts from the council, even when the warning signs were there. If you know you have a contract for the next three years, start looking now at bringing money in from regular givers, major donors, corporates, grants because it will take time to develop fundraising relationships. Start now!

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