Small charities, catalytic impact and the 3 Rs of good philanthropy

February 2, 2024

The Fore’s CEO and Founder Mary Rose Gunn highlights why backing small charities is more important than ever and how to do it well. 

2024 could be said to be looking bleak.  The challenges we’re facing as a society are mounting but cash-strapped government’s ability to innovate, regardless of the election result, looks more limited than ever.  However, this does not mean nothing can be done.  In fact, it creates a vitally important opportunity for those who are lucky enough to have some funding to share. 

Across the country there are thousands of social entrepreneurs with the cost-effective, high-impact solutions we need to make real change happen in communities.  The potential locked up in the charities these leaders run is huge but what many people don’t realise is that even a small gift can be the catalyst for massive change in these organisations and consequently across society. 

To small, community-based organisations, a few hundred pounds can make or break things.  When the recipient is chosen carefully, small sums can start systems change because the budgets of many charities are mind-bogglingly small.  Take the recycling charity Sal’s Shoes: founder CJ Bowry began in her garage, sending her son’s old shoes to children in need.  Today, with just a handful of staff and volunteers, they provide a million pairs of pre-loved shoes a year to children in 60 countries across the world.  Or Escapeline, which rescues children from horrific County Lines drug gang abuse.  Since 2019 it has worked with over 20,000 children and 500 professionals – and all on a budget of less than £200,000.  For £30,000 they are currently piloting a project with Wiltshire police that will be scaled to protect children across the whole of the UK if it works.  For small charities like these, making the smallest unrestricted donation can have a massive impact.

So, what is the best way to support smaller charities – whether it’s sharing your funds or even your skills?  It comes down to three things: research, respect and risk. 

Research may seem obvious but it is something that many potential donors forget when they start out.  In the age of the internet there is no excuse for not being informed about an issue that you care about enough to be thinking of supporting.  Philanthropists who have a basic understanding of what’s worked and what hasn’t in helping solve knife crime or isolation amongst the elderly can ask the sort of questions that will quickly reveal a good project over a bad one.  Research will give insights into where the support is needed – it may be that youth mental health provision in your area is quite well covered but there are access problems for a specific group.  360giving provides data on grant funding given in the UK by the top 200 funders, while organisations like The Fore publish all our awards so anyone can benefit from existing due diligence to find high quality small organisations.  Community foundations based all over the UK are also fantastic sources of local charity knowledge.  Collaborating with others has the potential not only to save time and money, but also to share knowledge and risk. This is still far too rare in the philanthropic world. 

When it comes to more detailed insights, speaking to local experts is invaluable.  Social entrepreneurs are passionate about their causes and bend over backwards to help, especially if they think you might support them.  But be careful not to take advantage.  Donating a small sum in recognition of time that might have been spent, if you decide a bigger donation isn’t appropriate, will always be appreciated because time with you is time away from their beneficiaries.  Starting with a smaller donation is also an excellent way to get to know an organisation.  Check back in after six months and find out how things have developed before suggesting going further if progress is strong (maybe even before they ask for it!). 

Second, and perhaps the most important of all, is respect.  In the philanthropic world there is long running debate about the unhealthy power dynamic between funders and funded – highlighted by the increased awareness of social and racial justice.  When one person has something the other needs, it is never going to be a meeting of equals.  If funders are aware of the power they hold and respect the knowledge and time of those running small charities and social enterprises, much of the negative impact of the power dynamic can be mitigated.  I don’t know many philanthropists keen to solve homelessness who know how to persuade someone sleeping rough into a shelter, but I do know fantastic grassroots social entrepreneurs who can.  Without the expertise and ability to connect with beneficiaries that charity staff and volunteers possess, the philanthropist’s wish to create social change is going to be a lot harder to achieve. 

Finally, we need to talk about risk.  Everyone knows that no one ever changed anything without taking some chances but philanthropists often want unrealistic levels of certainty when supporting social causes. The funders who really create impact recognise there are two types of risk: the uncomfortable kind and the exciting kind.  The first happens when people aren’t convinced of each other’s motives and parties are not aligned in what they are trying to achieve.  But in good philanthropy the risk feels exciting – yes it might not work, but if it does the results will be thrilling.  And the trust that relationships are based on provides the flexibility needed to ride the bumps in the road when they occur and provide an environment where everyone can learn from failures before trying again.  

There is no time to be lost with the cost-of-living crisis ever present and communities continuing to struggle. However you support – with money or skills – if you follow these principles it’s hard to go wrong and, as you watch the charities you work with change lives, the reward of knowing you played even the smallest part will be electric. 

Mary Rose Gunn is the founder and CEO of The Fore, the first venture philanthropy fund in the UK dedicated to supporting the development of high-quality small charities and social enterprises. Since its launch in 2017, The Fore has distributed over £9m in 555 development grants and shared 13,000 hours of skills support. 

In 2024, The Fore are launching The Fore Funders Collective.  The Collective will bring together new and experienced philanthropists who want to learn, be inspired and connect with others grappling with the challenges of being effective funders.   The first breakfast will take place on Wednesday 28th February at Vox Studios, 1-45 Durham St, London SE11 5JH on the topic Debunking Myths around being a Funder with guest speaker, Co-Founder of Imagine Foundation, Diane Eyre.

If you are a funder who would like to find out more or join the collective, please email Chimdia Okpala [email protected].