Let’s hear it for a bit of (positive) disruption

By Iona Joy 13 December 2018

Once again Gina Miller has created some controversy with comments about charities. Among all the things she said which were wrong headed, and I enjoyed Civil Society’s destruction of her flawed arguments, there was the odd comment I quite liked.

For instance ‘We need to change this mindset that you just give to the big names’. This made me think of all the sub-£5m charities we discover in our quest to find grantees for funders such as the Stone Family Foundation. One of the grantees, The Tutor Trust, offers tutoring by (mainly) students to 3,000 struggling pupils, on a turnover of just £554k.

Overall though I’m frustrated by Gina’s thinking. She positions herself as a disruptor, come to shake up the sector but I’m disappointed in the lazy orthodoxy of her assumptions about admin costs and so on. She parrots the line that ‘there are too many charities doing the same thing… the Charity Commission should stop registering new charities if similar ones exist’, seemingly not realising this undermines her point about the ‘big names’. The smaller charities she would like funders to fund are often younger disruptors in an established area—the very charities she wants the Commission to stop registering.

And these upstarts are vital to sector. Returning to the Tutor Trust, seven years ago they were the new kid on the block, among many existing tutoring charities. Was Tutor Trust a necessary addition? I must admit I was sceptical. Multiple new charities spring up some sectors—brain tumour research, or children’s hospices—often more in response to tragic personal stories than because they had a new way to deliver impact.

But Tutor Trust took a new approach to tutoring and did it really well. They disrupted the existing sector and results of an RCT to test their model have just come in and are terrific. Their model is scalable and could help to improve the educational attainment of thousands of children. This made me realise new charities can be a good thing—even if at first it looks like there is replication.

Another exciting techie disrupter is the new crisis text service. It partners with existing charities, including well-established ones such as The Mix and YoungMinds, to offer a texting option to their clients. Initially I wondered if, given existing helplines, this was really needed but again as its progress unfolds I’m forced to reconsider. Its sophisticated tech platform manned by a structure of volunteers and clinical supervisors is lean and effective. More need is met, more impact created.

I rejoice at the dynamism created by new organisations. In an ideal world as newcomers mature, they might merge into larger organisations—as Childline did with NSPCC. Merger, while not always popular, requires the bravery and ambition that we often see from the disruptive upstarts and can fulfil a similar function in keeping the sector fresh and dynamic.

So, let’s not listen to Gina Miller, but let’s not discount the genuine disruptors either. Without them this big, baggy sector would be far less exciting and far less effective.