Seven steps for sustaining #smallbutvital charities

For press coverage of this report - see Civil Society and Third Sector magazine

I recently had the pleasure of launching Facing Forward: How small and medium-sized charities can adapt to survive, a new report commissioned by the Lloyds Bank Foundation.

Written as a practical, accessible resource to help pressurised, time-poor CEOs or trustees of small charities plan for the future, it’s the culmination of several months of conversations with small charities and an in-depth understanding of the issues they face.

It feels timely to be focussing on sustainability, given there are so many uncertainties about the future. For me, sustainability doesn’t simply mean sustaining funding levels, it’s about sustaining our mission and the personal and collective energy the small charity sector brings to the table.

What really struck me through the conversations I had with small charity CEOs is the often-hidden toll that funding challenges are taking. Although in some cases charities’ income may have held up, it is not uncommon to hear that their workload has doubled, that they no longer have any say in service design, or that staff are working many unpaid hours.

Despite these challenging times, small charity leaders are among the most inspirational, caring and dedicated people you will ever meet. At the launch, Michelle Hill and Sarah Mitchell, Chief Executives of TLC: Talk, Listen, Change and Carers Network respectively, shared detail of the very real challenges they’re facing on the frontline.

For government and funders grappling with the social challenges of our time, these ought to be exactly the kind of people they put resources behind, those who are making a big difference with only a small amount of support.

Of course, charities need to adapt and Facing Forward was written for you. It starts by drawing together analysis of external research and sets out ten trends that are likely to shape the future. But offers much more.

So here are the seven practical steps we’ve set out to support charity leaders – both CEOs and trustees – plan for the turbulent times ahead:

1. Understanding sustainability

It’s natural that charities think firstly about sustaining their own services, but sustaining outcomes for your beneficiaries might sometimes mean considering a different path: campaigning, merger, or even closure. Everyone involved in your charity will have their own perspective on this, but it’s ultimately for trustees to decide its future.

2. Make time for planning

A major Charity Commission review of charities in financial difficulty found planning ahead – including with staff and trustees – was the critical factor in charities’ survival. Too often, charities leave it too late and only seek help at the point they’ve run out of viable options.

3. Assess your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats

Taking an honest look at your organisation (why are we here, what can we offer that others can’t?) will lay the groundwork for your plans. This can involve a simple SWOT analysis or you could use one of the free diagnostic tools highlighted in the report.

4. Match income to activities

Ask most small charities and they prefer grant funding (ideally core funding). But with grants in short supply, a good starting point is to segment your organisation’s activities using NCVO’s Money/Mission Matrix. This will prompt you to consider which activities could potentially generate income in future and which truly require ongoing subsidy.

5. Exploring income options

Armed with your self-assessment, you could then look to learn from other’s experiences of making different income streams successful. For example, how to get started with digital fundraising, or how to negotiate contracts. The report contains advice and links to resources that could help when exploring new income options.

6. Digital capability

The future is here, the future is digital. Charities cannot afford to overlook the rapid pace of technological change and its implications for their clients and their own services. Start by looking at 12 digital questions, an excellent resource from Zoe Amar Communications and the Charity Commission.

7. Sustaining ourselves

Back to where I began. Charities depend on the people who lead them. Supporting each other and ourselves is vital to future success; trustees need to be particularly mindful of this when putting more on the plates of already-stretched CEOs. A new book The Happy Healthy Nonprofit has great practical advice for charity leaders and Mind, the mental health charity has also produced guides on wellness at work.

For more tips and resources you can download the full report here.