What if you don’t have unlimited resources to throw at a problem? What if you’re not willing to work through all the steps only to find that your chosen solution doesn’t work quite as well in practice? What do you do then? Decide that philanthropy is not for you?
An alternative approach, or perhaps a stepping stone to more in-depth involvement, is to support a small or medium-sized charity. I run an advisory service and fundraising consultancy specialising in helping these entities grow. It can be highly fulfilling as equivalent input levels generally derive greater outputs at the smaller charities, especially on a personal level. On the other hand, some of these organisations are smaller for a reason and are best avoided. So what should you look for when choosing who to support?
Of course, when trying to improve the world, you want to find a charity whose vision matches yours. However, when we begin working with new charity clients, it is usually the vision where we start. Most are unambitious, not unique, too vague or ill-defined. Fortunately, most of our clients are happy with our suggestions and the organisation can then begin a new journey of growth. Many people assume that charities’ visions are set in stone, but you may find that many are open to your ideas.
One of our clients is run by a turnaround specialist. His view is that nearly all organisational issues arise from a dysfunctional board. Whether that is entirely true or not, the quality of the leadership and governance groups undoubtedly has a disproportionate effect on everything else. Slow or timid decision-making, sudden and haphazard changes in strategic direction and the undermining of the CEO by trustees are all common in such organisations. The answer to this is usually board diversification, but this takes time and is not always easy. So always have a private conversation with the Chair or CEO about how well the top team is functioning and what other issues might be lurking unseen. Do you want to spend time tackling these?
Big charities will have clear limits on what each donation brings. Twenty years ago, the first eight-figure donations were being secured and the red carpet was rolled out; those giving four figures would be of little interest unless they could be stewarded upwards. The figures needed to get recognition at the biggest charities are even greater now. However, smaller charities are typically much less clinical in their ‘gift-recognition tables’ and gratitude is likely to be effusive, genuine and repeated.
It’s not just about receiving due acknowledgement, though. Smaller charities are much more amenable to non-financial means of giving. Whether writing policies, reviewing legal contracts or helping with accounts, high-net-worth individuals can often help their charities in numerous ways.
Funding a smaller charity can put you in the position of a fairy godmother or guardian angel. That has many benefits, including the feel good factor, but the charity will often develop an unstated expectation that you will support them forever. This often leads to the charity becoming complacent and the funder feeling trapped. So, as with children, you want to encourage independence however much you love them and want them to be part of your lives. In short, you need to continually make it clear that the charity should be looking to have a minimum of three to five main funders who can collectively take the strain.
I started my charitable career at Help the Aged and the NSPCC, large charities which were extremely well-run. When setting up the consultancy, I could have focussed on these organisations – life would certainly have been smoother – but they are already well-served and I find the rewards are much greater with smaller charities. What should you expect at various-sized organisations?
So, in summary, an ordered, step-by-step approach to philanthropy is undoubtedly an excellent way to go about things. But if you like getting your hands dirty and prefer a more organic or entrepreneurial existence, do consider helping out a small or medium-sized charity. It can be highly gratifying.
Nick Ryan is the CEO of Vantage Fundraising www.vantagefundraising.co.uk
You can see details of a medical project that Nick is currently supporting here: My Bridge International UK
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