In this week's blog, written especially for Small Charity Week, I want to urge you to get a grip on finance. Yes, I know. We would all much prefer a chat about mission, vision and values but there are just too many small charities that seem to be in a state of perpetual anxiety over financial instability, and which struggle to build or maintain a solid financial base. Let me highlight for you the importance of understanding financial stability, responsible growth, and investing in staff and organisation development. When you start to get it, you won't look back.
The Myth of the Money-Blind Saint
To begin, it's time we all shattered the myth of the money-blind saint who runs a small charity on goodwill alone. While charity frogs are fuelled by passion and a genuine desire to make the world a better place, we do need to acknowledge that money matters. Financial constraints cast a long shadow over our day-to-day operations, and it's foolish to underestimate the importance of a healthy balance sheet.
The Practical Side of Charity
As small charities, we face unique challenges in the pursuit of our noble goals. We navigate limited budgets, rely on a few dedicated staff members, and often have to stretch every pound to make three. Having enough money makes a difference. It drives our services, enables us to support more beneficiaries, and to invest in the infrastructure needed to sustain our operations. On the other hand, financial instability is a constant distraction that can monopolise trustee and senior management time, and hinder plans for the future.
Operating with Limited Resources
Compared to larger organisations, small charities often struggle with limited resources. Therefore, it's essential we have an effective strategic plan and budget that guides decision making and ensures the resources we have are focused on services which can deliver most impact. Instead of chasing every grant opportunity you find, consider growing only when you can scale properly, or consolidate services to achieve a more financially stable position. Introducing a new service without the appropriate infrastructure to support it is stretching your organisation's resources, not scaling them. It inevitably leads to burn-out.
Finding Creative Solutions to Power Funding
People who work in small charities often possess great problem-solving skills and resilience. It's time to deploy that creativity on a bigger scale. By embracing creative solutions and thinking outside the box, it's possible to explore alternate funding streams, such as sharing office space with another charity, or leveraging social media for fundraising. The beauty of this type of revenue, unlike grant funding, is that it is unrestricted. You can start to build a solid foundation base, from which to invest back into the organisation. With the right resources in place, the organisation can develop, without imploding in the process.
Multi-tasking to Save Money
Small charities often operate with limited staff and resources, requiring all of us to wear multiple hats. Most of us love the variation this gives to our job, enabling us to develop as part of a supportive team: leading here, assisting there, filling in when someone is on holiday. It creates a sense of confidence that we can turn our hands to anything, and reinforces one of the most positive perceptions we all have of small charities, which is our flexibility and nimbleness.
But we shouldn’t overlook the downsides. Limited resources can lead to overstretched teams, perpetual firefighting, and a lack of expertise in specific areas of operation. Small charities need to invest in staff development and be prepared to tap into external expertise when necessary.
Thinking about Spending Strategically
The world around us is constantly evolving, and a strategic plan to navigate changes is crucial for any organisation, including small charities. But it is not a wish list or a numbers game; a strategic plan is a roadmap to guide us from where we are today to where we want to be in a few years' time. A well-structured strategic plan incorporates clear goals, strategic objectives, and costings. It also includes a system for monitoring and evaluating progress. Above all, it ensures that financial decisions align with the charitable objectives and prioritise areas that will have the greatest impact.
Small charities may lack internal specialist skills and extensive networks, but we can invest in external expertise and specialised training. Engaging consultants, attending workshops, or participating in industry conferences can provide invaluable insights and strategies for sustainable growth. While many agencies and consultants offer discounted services to charities, it's important to recognise that expert help will come at a price, and it's appropriate to invest in the knowledge and support we need.
Attracting and Retaining Talent
Finally, a word about recruiting and retaining talented staff. There's no doubt that small charities can sometimes struggle to compete with larger organisations in this area. But in my experience both as a charity CEO and as a trustee, it can be done. Offering opportunities for professional development, and investing in training, demonstrates commitment to the growth and well-being of staff. It also creates a culture of learning and progression, making our organisations more appealing to the amazing individuals out there who seek meaningful work.
Money should not be an awkward topic. By embracing the idea that investment in organisation development and staff training is a strategic decision, we can view it no longer as an expense we need to apologise for, but as a way to help us achieve greater impact and long-term sustainability.
Let’s never hide from the significance of money in what we do. Instead, together, let's champion a new era of small charities that embrace growth, learning, and transformation.
Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. Having spent the earlier part of her career in publishing, she switched to the charity sector and became CEO of a local deaf charity. Over a period of ten years, she is credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She has since stepped back from that role to embark on a PhD about the impact of marketisation on deaf charities, alongside mentoring other CEOs of small charities. She uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She also volunteers as a trustee for two charities.