Plants sprouting out of a glass full of money.

Why funders need to champion small charities

By Kate Symondson 16 November 2023 4 minute read

In this guest blog, Kate Symondson, Head of Philanthropy at The Symondson Foundation, highlights the importance of funding small charities and how to overcome some of the barriers to this.  

I’ve been thinking about the challenges that small charities face. At a recent conference, I mentioned to a fundraiser of a small organisation that as a grant maker, I don’t accept unsolicited applications for funding. Whilst the fundraiser understood my reasons for this, they pointed out that this approach gets in the way of smaller charities making themselves known to Foundations, such as my family’s.  

The Symondson Foundation is committed to looking for ‘organisations that work to overcome issues of inequity’, and this is central to our vision for change. Over 4/5 of the third sector’s income is generated by large charities (with an annual income of over £1m), and yet small charities (with an income of under £1m) make up 96% of the sector. Over the last decade or so, larger charities income has grown by a 1/3, whilst the smallest charities income dropped by a quarter. With this knowledge, it struck me that I needed to give serious consideration to how I could ensure that my own organisation was not part of the problem that we purport to want to help fix.  

I freely admit that I experience a particular sense of joy in funding a smaller organisation and seeing the tangible ways in which unrestricted, multi-year grants may help remedy a challenge they’ve faced, whilst contributing to their stability, strategy, and development. My personal experience of funding organisations that fall under the £500,000 threshold is certainly at odds with the commonand incorrectassumption that a small charity has minimal or insignificant impact. Personal gratification aside, there are many compelling reasons for apportioning at least some of your endowment and attention to the smaller end of the scale.  

A top-down approach can be insensitive towards the nuances of a locality, a community, and an experience, whereas many grassroots initiatives are born out of a deep understanding, and often direct experience of local need. Given the inherent lack of resources ground-up collectives tend to have (at least at the start of their journey), they tend to be extraordinarily innovative and deft at finding solutions to problemsnot to mention cost effective. They take risks, quickly learning from what’s worked and what needs refinement. They test models that can provide invaluable information and data, can be scaled up, and ultimately have a profound influence across the sector and the country.  

Yet there are many barriers that get in the way of a small charity’s success, most of which (I believe) could be torn down by philanthropists and Foundations changing their own approaches. I recently co-hosted a breakfast with NPC where champions of small charities (founders, fundraisers, and grant makers) came together to discuss how to better support these invaluable organisations.  

At the breakfast, I shared some of the measures that I take to compensate for the consequences of not having an open application process: 

  • Being able to afford a dedicated, experienced fundraiser is beyond reach for many, however, having an effective fundraiser does not equal the delivery of the best operations. When I am considering an organisation (be it charity or social enterprise), I get to know them first-hand and, where appropriate, observe operations whilst being mindful of people’s time and resources. I will occasionally ask them to respond to three simple questions to ensure I have grasped what type of funding would be most helpful, but usually, I build a case for them myself and present that to my committee.  
  • I take a similar approach to impact reporting, asking only to have a candid conversation around the time of their multi-year grant renewal. If they have an impact report pre-prepared for other donors, I will take a look at that, but I don’t impose my own system. I am keen to understand changing needs as well as challenges and will often offer uplifts in response. 
  • I spread the word about my grantees to my wider network and champion the work that they do to help overcome their relative invisibility in the grant-making world and attract more support.  

These approaches are intended to be sympathetic to the limitations that an organisation with fewer resources may experience, but I realise that I need to do more to overcome the relative invisibility that the grassroots sector faces. I am therefore giving to The Fore and Rosa: grant-making charities that have a particular focus on that sector. These organisations share my view that access to funding should not be complicated or onerous, and that funding should be unrestricted. They do not penalise a charity for a lack of expertise in the administrative and fundraising aspects of charity; and they actively help an organisation thrive by supporting their development and bolstering their skills. 

The input of attendees at the breakfast was invaluable for showing me that there is more I can do. For example, I will be adopting the Helvellyn Foundation’s approach, whereby – in lieu of having open applications – they invite charities to ‘be discovered’ by submitting the broad-strokes of their organisation in an online form. Coming together as funders to reflect on how we can change a culture that has created and perpetuated inequities in grant-making is a start in changing the landscape for small charities. 


Related items