Why are charities getting such a bad press?

At the moment, it seems like not a day goes by without another bad news story about the charity sector.

Some of it is, of course, deserved, but most of it is not. The recent closure of Kids Company added fuel to the fire. Here is just a small selection of some of the headlines from the last 12 months:

Poppy seller Olive Cooke faced ‘uncontrollable’ deluge of charity letters

Outrage as charity bosses pocket six-figure salaries from generous public donations

One in five of the UK’s biggest charities are ‘spending less than half of their income on good causes’ (and some spend as little as ONE PER CENT on charitable work)

Charity fundraising tactics ‘a scandal’, says senior MP

As a co-founder of a small UK international development charity,  I feel compelled to take stock of the current state of the sector and highlight the importance of the contributions small charities make to it.

How is the UK charity sector made up?

Small NGOs make up the majority of the UK international development sector. According to the latest figures (NCVO Almanac 2013) there were 163,763 voluntary organisations in the UK, 97 percent of which have a turnover of under £1million and 84 percent have an income of less than £100,000.


According to data published in 2013 by Charity Choice, small charities experienced an 11

16 percent decline in annual income over the five years to 2011/12, while large charities experienced a 31 percent increase. Their data also showed that the top 5 percent of charities receive 85 percent of all charitable income.

What is the bad press about?

It is impossible to say there are one or two issues that are causing this furore, but the main themes of the negative press seem to be around fundraising practice, CEO pay and the way charitable donations are spent.

Olive Cooke was an avid charity supporter and at one point it was claimed she received 267 charity letters in one month. This led to suggestions that being hounded for money from charities had pushed her to kill herself. However, Mrs Cooke’s family actually said the charities were not to blame for her death.

Stories about Charity CEO pay make regular appearances in the news. One story from the Telegraph reads ‘the number of charity executives paid over £200,000 a year has increased despite efforts to curb pay levels in the voluntary sector’. “despite efforts to curb pay levels in the voluntary sector”! I don’t even know where to begin with this…My thoughts on the subject are summarised very well by Dan Pallotta’s wonderful TED talk entitled ‘The Way We Think About Charity is Dead Wrong‘. I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t done so already.

The Telegraph reported in December 2015, that ‘One in five of Britain’s biggest charities spend less than 50 per cent of total income on good works‘. They later printed a tiny retraction admitting the report was wrong and inaccurate, but the damage was done.


What does this mean for small charities?

I suspect the voluntary sector must, sadly, now prepare itself for further onslaught of bad press. We must be prepared, however unjustified, to defend ourselves and the amazing work we do to support marginalised and in-need communities and individuals across the UK and internationally.


For smaller charities, there is an opportunity for us to show why small charities have some advantages over larger ones:

  • Small charities are often better in tune with the needs of the communities they serve.
  • They are often more efficient and providing better value for money for donors.
  • Smaller charities are typically not restricted by the same kind of bureaucracy that larger organisations or the state are subjected to.
  • Smaller charities are often closer to their beneficiary group and are able to be more flexible in responding to changing environments.

However, small charities face a number of difficulties too:

  • Small charities often have limited resources with work often carried out by volunteers from the ‘kitchen table’.
  • They lack core funding to cover their own institutional development costs and build internal capacity.
  • Small charities are hidden within the sector and most people will donate to charities they have heard of.


I am incredibly proud to be a part of the UK voluntary sector, specifically the small charity sector. Though I wholeheartedly agree that charities must of course be well run, accountable and best serving the needs of their beneficiaries, I do hope that this attack on our sector dies down and people are reminded that the vast majority of charities are run efficiently, effectively and by people who desperately want to make the world a better place.


Image sources: http://www.autumn-harvest.si/images/badnews.jpg and Twitter



Social media tips for small charities

For small charities, who often have little or no budget for marketing, social media is an absolute must! But how can smaller charities make the most of their Facebook or Twitter account?

One: Start with who you know…

If like me, you have volunteered, worked at, or been a Trustee of a small charity, you will be all too familiar with asking friends and family to support your cause. When it comes to starting out with your social media accounts, approach your own networks for support first. Then, ask all volunteers, staff members and Trustees to encourage their networks show their support on social media too by liking, following, re-tweeting and so on.

Two: Make it personal 

As a small charity, you are bound to have some amazing stories to tell. Keep your supporters updated with real-life stories of people they have helped you to support. If you have close contact with your beneficiaries – as many smaller charities do – make sure you are telling their stories regularly (with their permission of course!) and really demonstrate the impact you are having.

Three: Make it enjoyable and shareable

What kinds of things do you enjoy seeing on Facebook or Twitter? What do you tend to share on your own account? Apart from cute cat videos, I tend to share good news stories, statistics or facts that I find shocking or things that make me smile or laugh. How can you create content that your supporters will want to share?

Four: Keep a balance

Try to keep a balance between sharing your own stories, third-party content (when you share someone else’s story), asking for support and stuff that is just for fun! Try not to include an ‘ask’ in every post but ensure you are providing frequent opportunities for your supporters to take action, for example by making a donation, signing a petition, visiting your website or sharing a story.

Five: Use hashtags 

As a small charity, you are unlikely to have thousands of likes or followers on social media. But, this doesn’t have to stop you from getting your message out there. If used correctly, hashtags can be very useful. Hashtags allow your organisation to participate and inspire conversations (and in the process get new followers). Make sure you are using relevant hashtags such as #CharityTuesday #ChangedbyCharity #SocialGood #FollowFriday #NonProfit #Volunteer etc.

The Small Charities Coalition has some great social media resources, check them out for some more helpful tips and inspiration!

Image source: http://www.the-edesign.com/

The small charity health check

Over the last four months, I’ve been working with the charity I co-founded in 2008 to support it’s transition from volunteerism to professionalism. Since 2008, the charity has been run solely by its Trustees and a small group of passionate volunteers. At the end of 2015 we knew things had to change if the organisation was going to be sustainable.

I started working as a small charity consultant in late 2015 and this was my first project. Now, a few months into the project, I decided to put together the beginnings of a ‘health-check’ for small charities that are looking to professionalise, grow and increase efficiency and effectiveness:

1. Take a long hard look in the mirror– and be honest!

Sit down with a pen and paper and do a SWOT analysis of your organisation. If you find it hard to be honest, ask a friend to do it with you, they may ask questions you don’t want to answer! You’ll need to be honest about your strengths and weaknesses if you are going to move forward.
2. Get your house in order 

Are all your documents organised in folders and do you have back ups? Do you have the right insurance in place? Do you have all the policies and procedures you need? (on paper, not in your head!) Do you have the necessary professional memberships (Institute of Fundraising, Small Charities Coalition, FSI, Bond etc)? With so many other priorities, administration often falls to the bottom of the to do list. However, putting the work in now will save time in the long run.
3. Does your charity make sense to the external world?

You may know what GBV, FGM or NGO mean, but do your supporters? When talking to an external audience, make sure you are talking about yourselves in layman’s terms, no jargon, no sector specific language. Take a look at your vision, mission, strap-line and “key messages” and test them on someone with no knowledge of what you do – if they don’t get it, you need to change them!

4. Get your internal communication right

Do all of your Trustees know your charity’s vision and mission? It sounds crazy but often they don’t. At your next Trustees meeting ask your Board members to each write down what they think the vision and mission of the charity is. If there is some confusion or different interpretations of what you do, then you need to do some work on ensuring everyone is singing from the same song sheet.

5. Believe in yourself, and so will others.

Being a part of a small charity is amazing, no doubt your Trustees, volunteers and staff (if you have any) will all feel passionately about what you are doing. Don’t see this process of professionalisation as something to fear or something that will take away from the amazing thing you’ve created.

If you’d like support with your charity’s health check or would like to learn more, drop me an email at v.hancockfell@gmail.com

5 tips for working from home

Last month, I started working as Team Kenya’s first full-time paid member of staff – hooray! I’ve been volunteering for the charity since 2008 when my mother and I founded it. I was so excited to start, and I knew that I would be working from home as we don’t have offices yet, bonus!

There is no doubt that working from home has it’s perks: working in your PJs all day, awesome! Hanging out with the cat, lovely! Having a cheeky mid afternoon nap, amazing! However, I soon came to realise that working from home, despite it’s many pros, has an equal number of cons. Not leaving the house all day, only having your cat to speak to, having no office buddies to have a chat with over the water cooler (not that I ever did that when I worked in an office) to name just a few. So, I started looking into some tips for working from home, and here is what I’ve found to be most useful.

Have a routine and be disciplined 

Really can’t emphasise the importance of this one enough. For the first week of working from home, I stayed in my PJs until 5pm, when I then quickly got dressed before my husband got home from work and caught me slobbing out! I also didn’t stop for a proper lunch break, or leave the house for some fresh air. At the end of the week I felt awful; tired, stressed and lonely. Now I get up and dressed ready to be at my desk in my “uniform” (usually jeans and a smart jumper) by 9am, ready to take on the day. I also take regular breaks and have an egg timer that goes off every 30 minutes to remind me to. I make myself take an hour long lunch break and try to get out of the house. Then at 5pm, I shut down the computer and finish for the day.

Interact with other humans

Need to speak to someone about something? Don’t email, call them, Skype them, FaceTime them, meet up with them. Creating opportunities to interact with another living being other than your pet or the postman, will keep you sane and remind you of the world that exists outside your four walls. Using social media to stay connected is also a great way to feel like you’re not alone – I love chatting to people on Twitter and asking for advice. My Twitter people are like the office buddies I don’t have around me at home! (Say hi to me on Twitter!)

Switch off 

Working from home can mean that the line between working and relaxing becomes blurred – I’m as guilty as they come for checking my emails on my phone as soon as I wake up in the morning, or checking into see how many Instagram likes Team Kenya’s photo got today. If you’re not careful, work can seep into every part of your life and soon you’ll live and breathe it. Don’t get me wrong, I started to work for Team Kenya because I’m passionate about what we do and I love the work, but this doesn’t mean it is healthy to think about it 24/7. Make sure you have a good few hours a day where you switch off from work stuff and spend time developing the other aspects of your life.

Start something new and invest in you

Since I started working from home, I’ve used the money I would have spent on the daily commute for a monthly massage, a weekly yoga class and a few other classes and treats to get me out of the house and to invest in looking after myself! You may choose start a once a week craft class, or learn a new skill or language. Whatever it is, it has to be for you, and something that has nothing to do with your day job.

Don’t become consumed

All of the suggestions above basically mean, don’t become consumed with your work. Make sure it doesn’t take over your home life, invest in your own time and personal development, give yourself structure, reward yourself, be disciplined.

Why is there no literature about small NGO management?

Small NGOs make up the majority of the UK international development sector, yet there is very little research, literature or guidance about their management. In 2009/10 there were 163,763 voluntary organisations in the UK (NCVO), 53% of these were defined as Micro (income less than £10,000 per year according to the Charity Commission) and 31% were defined as Small (income of £10,000 – £100,000 according to the Charity Commission). Many of these small NGOs are run by people who in some cases have no experience or expertise in running a charity, just a hell of a lot of passion and commitment. Small NGO leaders are the Head of Fundraising and Marketing, the HR Manager, the Administration Assistant and Volunteer Manager all rolled into one – in many cases whilst also having the governance and long-term sustainability of the organisation to consider.

These small NGOs are often over-reliant on their founders, who passionately work to keep their organisation afloat and beneficiaries supported, in some cases along side a full time job and family life. Sadly, many founders find themselves stretched too thin with very little guidance available to them about how to manage their organisations. Many small NGO leaders are simply left to work it out for themselves. The potential in these organisations, to create a real and lasting positive impact on the people they support is sadly limited by their lack of visibility and support within the sector.

There is plenty of literature available in the field of development studies and international development. There is not, however, a similarly wide range of literature on the topic of NGO management, especially for small NGOs, despite the fact that small charities make up the majority of the UK voluntary sector. Adding insult to injury, according to data published in 2013 by Charity Choice, small charities experienced an 11 percent decline in annual income over the five years to 2011/12, while large charities experienced a 31 percent increase. Now, more than ever, small INGO leaders need guidance about the management of their organisations.

Small NGOs in particular face difficulties when seeking to develop and grow and unlike private and public sector organisations, they lack simple analytical tools for targeting additional resources consistent with their organisational aims and their phase of life . Taylor outlines various stages of an organisations development or ‘life-cycle’. He suggests the first phase is the ‘pioneer’ phase. This is when the idea is “born”, the NGO is founded, the vision and mission established, the first grant received and so on. In this same phase Taylor says ‘if the initiative flourishes’ it enters a period of excitement, growth and co-workers are involved in a vast array of different activities. An obvious point of contention here is that Taylor refers to ‘co-workers’ as though the organisation is already hiring staff and there are a team of people working achieving this “growth”. Though he continues to say that many initiatives that got off to a successful start find themselves in a phase of endless activity deciding on staff and setting wage levels.

This is where the gap presents itself. Taylor is claiming that this ‘pioneer’ phase is the first phase of an organisation’s development. He seems to assume that the organisation is established and set up in a way that is already successfully bringing in income. Who is applying for these grants? What about the volunteer or founder-led phase where the organisation doesn’t have the capacity to raise a lot of money or hire employees? This phase could last for years before the organisation reaches the point of employing staff, and indeed many small INGOs remain in the volunteer led phase for many years. Taylor adds that if an initiative ‘flourishes’ then the organisation will enter this exciting pioneer phase. There are many small, volunteer run NGOs whose programmes are flourishing and who aspire to enter this pioneering stage of hiring staff and securing a physical space, but Taylor seems to overlook the difficulties that many of them face in achieving this. There is an assumption that if the initiative is successful, then growth will surely follow and an organisation will find themselves in this ‘exciting and creative’ phase where growth is inevitable. The reality seems somewhat different.

It should be acknowledged that there is some literature and guidance available for small NGOs. However, there is a clearly observable gap in this body of literature and support. Guidance currently available for small NGOS regularly identifies common problems for small charities – lack of resources, including staff and funding and lack of organisational capacity, which results in amateurish management and inefficiency. Lipson identifies this problem in her paper ‘Effective Governance: A Guide for Small and Diaspora NGOs’ produced for INTRAC in 2012 as well as others (e.g. James, 2012, Jeffery 2014).

Lipson’s paper is a resource to share information, tools and tips that might help small and diaspora NGOs strengthen the governance of their organisations. She identifies that a common issue faced by small NGO boards is that board members work too much at the operational level rather than focusing attention on the strategic level. She goes on to observe that this is often linked to a “lack of resources, staff and funding, meaning trustees serve as ‘volunteer experts’ rather than in governance”. The gap in the literature starts to become clear when Lipson fails to provide any solution or guidance for small NGOs to overcome this problem. After identifying it as common among UK NGOs, she goes on to provide guidance on codes for good governance, roles and responsibilities of board members, board management and development, relational dynamics and finally some practical tips including ‘self evaluation’ and spending ‘quality time together’ as a board. Nowhere in her paper does Lipson tackle the major problem she identifies as common to many small UK NGOs – lack of resources and capacity.

If you would like to get in touch to add to this conversation please drop me an email at vic@team-kenya.co.uk

International Development and NGOs: What Does the Next Decade hold?

There are currently around 800-1,000 NGOs working in the UK, within them there are approximately 20,000 staff and volunteers. From them, around 20 are very large NGOs, including the likes of Oxfam and Save the Children, who combined, currently have 24% of the sector’s resources. In this blog I will be talking about trends in international development and how they may influence the way that international NGOs will grow and evolve over the next ten years.

Fundamental drivers of international development problems such as inequality and conflict are becoming more prevalent. Widening inequality is a key factor having a detrimental effect on international development. Research shows that inequality is widening, nationally, regionally and globally. On a global scale, poverty and inequality is exasperated by overconsumption by the rich in the North and in middle income countries where rapid development has taken place leaving behind individuals living in extreme poverty.

Action Aid’s report, ‘2020 Development Futures’ (Evans, 2012) emphasises that this is likely to effect public opinion about where INGOs work internationally, “why should we be helping India when they have a space programme?”. As these countries develop it is likely that development agencies and INGOs will focus their attention and funding elsewhere. For example, ODI (2012) have projected that by 2025, development problems will be most prevalent in low-income African states and that by 2025, five-sixths of the world’s poor will live in Africa and “this will have important implications for the targeting of aid resources across countries” . This raises the question of where development agencies should be working internationally in the next ten years. If INGOs focus their efforts in low-income African countries, what does this mean for the future of the poor in middle-income countries? Should NGOs ‘work for poor people, not poor countries?’.

Who will be the actors in international development in the next decade? Although public attitudes towards the not-for-profit sector are changing, there is still support. Support is often for the more well known “brands”, does this mean smaller NGOs will find it more difficult to garner support? Not necessarily, successful NGOs are those who are mission driven, with capacity in the South, have “credibility” above brand and who pay close attention to monitoring and evaluation and cost recovery. If smaller, lesser-known NGOs can achieve these things the public may consider them more favourably than large NGOs. It may also be important to consider whether the public, i.e. our donors, will favour smaller NGOs after some of the big names have faced scrutiny in the press over CEO pay (Daily Mail, 2014). Large-scale service delivery will become a key for some NGOs, but for the vast majority it will become less important, this may allow smaller UK-based NGOs to get a foothold in development.