Little things that make me cheerful

19 Dec 2011 Voices

A spot of research on the register of charities reminded David Philpott just how wonderful the UK's charity sector really is.

A spot of research on the register of charities reminded David Philpott just how wonderful the UK's charity sector really is.

I saw on the evening news the other day that both my building society mortgage and my high street bank account will be owned by other entities soon.  The government – for better or for worse - has determined that LloydsTSB must sell off over 600 branches including its Cheltenham & Gloucester subsidiary.  I don’t really have a view on this, but as a stakeholder, it would have been nice to have been asked what I thought about it.

Breaking up big monopolies seems to be flavour of the month right now, where even your local council’s requirement to make planning decisions, looks likely to pass to community groups more akin to neighbourhood watch schemes – this,  as the localism agenda takes shape.  

Conversely, parliamentary attempts to revive the old Tesco-charity debate recently – the idea that small charities are suffering as big ones cosy up to government and act like Whitehall departments and that we should start thinking small and local – got short shrift from the chair of NCVO, who described such language as misplaced. Be that as it may; I have a story of good cheer in the small-versus-big, local-versus-international debate.

A relatively small international development charity, with a focus on clean drinking water, commissioned me some months ago to conduct a feasibility study.  They wanted to know if they could successfully transpose their brand to Great Britain and generate several million pounds a year in fundraising revenues annually, in what was perceived to be an already overcrowded market. The research required me to look at over 200 charities on the Commission’s register which had comparable objects and that were operating in similar overseas territories. 

It soon became clear to me that as Mr Duncan Smith had suggested in his famous “Tescoisation” speech in 2005, this arena of endeavour was dominated by a few big household names. But what was refreshing and oh-so-encouraging though, was just how many micro-charities were on the register - and charities that had been there for many years to boot.  For these, the story was consistent.  Man/woman (delete as appropriate) finds themselves in Calcutta / Philippines / Ethiopia / Peru (delete as appropriate) and noticing the abject poverty and realising how much good a few Euros can do, comes back to Blighty, sets up a charity and the rest as they say…………..  Supported in the succeeding years by friends, family, their local church or lodge; year on year people visit the overseas beneficiaries, often taking the cash with them; digging the well with their own fair hands and maintaining a link with the community for over a decade. This is town twinning at its finest, but alas, you won’t see many 'Twinned with Timbuktu' signs as you enter most municipalities in England.

The point is that those big charities that we do not need to name, bring clout and pressure and professionalism to international development work in a way that these micro-charities never can.  They both have their place and it is to the credit of the Charity Commission – that old toothless dog that seems to bark at village hall committees about governance yet cowers in deference like a whimpering spaniel in the face of the big professional organisations – that on this occasion they have got it right.  The register is open to all, save for a few minor, not unreasonable, entry conditions.

But just as Mary Portas suggested last week that we need to proactively engage with our high streets lest the out-of-town developments close them down forever, maybe it behoves us all to pause, wonder and marvel at these little projects and see what we as a sector can do to be more fully engaged with them, for they have neither the funds nor the expertise to lead the charge themselves.

Oh, and just in case you were wondering what I recommended to my clients concerning whether the market could sustain another development charity – the answer was…………………

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