Big charities should do more

By John Copps 8 September 2009

The distribution of income among charities in the UK is highly skewed. The top 2% command 70% of total income, and the top 0.2% (or just 411 out of a total of more than 170,000 organisations) command 43% of all revenue.

Even more striking, there are 18 ‘super-charities’, each with an annual income of more than £100m, that stand above the rest of the sector. This includes the likes of Cancer Research UK, the NSPCC and the British Red Cross. Ask the man on the street to name a charity and these are the ones he will reel off.

These organisations have vast resources. They have substantial reserves and benefit from steady streams of income, often from direct debits from the public. They are cosy with government and have considerable media clout. Such luxuries most charity bosses would give their right arm for.

But history shows that it is extraordinarily difficult to break into this elite group. The top charities have been the top charities for decades.

At a time when many charities are struggling, the division between big and small is starker than ever.

Given their wealth, power and influence, I think that big charities should do more. At its core, being a charity is about fulfilling a charitable purpose. It is about concern for a cause and putting the beneficiary first, something that requires a broad view and an appreciation of the world beyond the narrow confines of your own organisation.

I think that this implies big charities supporting their smaller counterparts. They should be challenged to face up to the implications of their success and the responsibility it brings.

So let’s see big charities using their resources more creatively. Why shouldn’t they use some of their wealth to give grants to smaller organisations? What about more in the way of sharing staff, expertise and other forms of non-financial support? Where they share the same charitable purpose, big charities should recognise where small charities are doing a good job, including where they are doing the job better than they could.