Is your charity seeking the holy grail of sustainability? Investing in training and leadership will help you find the path to enlightenment, says Peter Laing
“Passion, commitment and hard work are no longer good enough” – these were my words to the staff team at Bonny Downs Community Association (BDCA) at our last AGM. As a small local charity with a turnover of £430k, we have relied heavily on these noble attributes during our 13-year existence, and indeed they have served us very well. But with the global recession, increased demands for charity services and changes in government policies, the landscape has changed significantly for charities such as BDCA.
Like many small charities, for years we have operated our fundraising function on a shoestring budget, making use of volunteer fundraisers, project staff, consultants and myself. Over time there has been little investment in specific fundraising training, due to prohibitive costs and a perceived lack of available staff time. This approach has, however, taken its toll, with grant income at BDCA falling by nearly 50 per cent over the past three years. We are aware of at least three other small charities local to us that have recently had to close their doors due to lack of funds. For BDCA, change has been necessary in order to survive - it has certainly been a case of adapt, or risk closure.
Supported by a range of Institute of Fundraising (IoF) initiatives, including training and leadership support programs (subsidised through the Office for Civil Society), we have started to put together a package of measures to help safeguard the important work of the organisation.
Firstly, we have shifted our fundraising function up a gear, getting trustees to agree additional resources specifically towards fundraising. We have up-skilled existing staff and in 2012/13 plan to employ a dedicated professional fundraiser for the first time. I personally have been struck by the realisation of how narrow our fundraising efforts have been to date, or put more positively, how many untapped opportunities are available to small charities such as ourselves.
Secondly, supported in part by the IoF leadership program, we have been able to take a more fundamental look at how we operate. We have realised the need to work more in consortia, particularly when bidding for statutory contracts, as this type of collaboration enables us to use a smaller proportion of our resources to carry the administrative burden of tenders and contract negotiations with public bodies.
Thirdly, through marketing initiatives we have actively sought to increase earned income through our café and facility hire functions. I believe that to survive and continue to deliver high-quality services, small charities such as ours will need to have a diverse portfolio of income sources. This in itself is nothing new; however I certainly see charities having to undertake more and more commercial activities in order to supplement their more traditional sources of income.
A paradox in play
Finally, in line with the government’s Big Society agenda, we are seeking to make more effective use of our volunteers. However it does appear to me somewhat of a paradox that in an increasingly commercial and ‘professionalised’ charity sector, we are having to be more reliant on volunteers – surely that is not fair to charities or indeed to volunteers on who unrealistic expectations are placed?
In summary, the challenges are many and varied for all third sector organisations, and particularly smaller charities. Ultimately we are all seeking to achieve the holy grail of sustainability, and in doing so it is easy to assume hard work and passion alone will get us there. However, the toolkit required for success has changed, and I would encourage all those in the privileged position of heading up a small charity to check their toolbox, and sharpen their tools.
Peter Laing is chief executive at Bonny Downs Community Association and an IoF member.
This article first appeared in Fundraiser magazine, Issue 15, March 2012