Big steps in a small charity

David Robinson
CEO, LD:NorthEast

Every day is different at LD:NorthEast. Like most people working in the charity sector, it’s part of what we like about it. Yes, these are challenging times, but they are also exciting. We have to work in new ways and be more creative in how we attract much needed resources. Most of the people we support are receiving less support from statutory bodies than ever before and in many cases, no support at all. It’s frustrating, but we have an obligation to fight for every person to make sure they can do the things we take for granted. Things like having friends, having some fun and feeling good. 

Running a small / medium sized charity has its challenges. Despite this, we are growing and have ambitious plans to continue to grow and make sure we are around for the long term. We need to be. So many people rely on us. I’m lucky because I have a fantastic team of staff and volunteers and a very supportive board of trustees. I am very reliant on a lot of goodwill and thankfully there’s lots of it about. I know I push it a little too far sometimes. I also know that too often I take lots of small bites out of too many things and risk getting nowhere. My small management team take on a lot of responsibility. We don’t have an HR department. There’s no IT staff. We don’t have someone who dedicates all of their time to quality. There’s no Director of Finance. There are no bid writers. There isn’t a training department. I sometimes wonder if things will get easier as we grow. I also wonder about charities and community organisations who are even smaller and how tough it is for them. Regardless of size, they still need good safeguarding processes, policies and procedures and financial controls. They have to write bids, monitor and report to funders, employ and develop staff, keep up to date with legislation and make sure staff, volunteers and customers are safe. Many smaller organisations rely heavily on volunteers. We are so grateful for the support people offer us, but volunteering doesn’t just happen. It requires management and support. All of the things larger organisations do, still need to be done and often this isn’t recognised.

I have worked in charities and private sector businesses large and small, and each have presented different challenges. Larger organisations tend to have more resources available to them but can struggle to have a local presence. This can have an effect on how they are able to demonstrate social value, or be really connected within a locality, especially if they move into a new geographic location. Smaller organisations can be better connected, but have fewer people, each often having a very wide remit. This can result in it being difficult to find the time to commit even to important things like evidencing impact, promoting great work and of course competing with the bigger players who are able to offer better prices, especially in tender submissions. One thing is consistent however… the need to keep in touch with the people you are there for. Your customers / clients / users will of course make or break you, so although I’m suggesting that the smaller organisations are as challenging, if not more challenging to lead because they have the same issues to consider as the larger ones, but with fewer resources and less developed infrastructure, a real positive is that leadership in smaller organisations (in my experience) are much closer to the people who rely on them and as such, are able to better meet their needs. This was one of the main reasons that attracted me to moving from a large to a small charity.

I have had some great years working for larger organisations, but working in a smaller set up brings you so much closer to people and a greater understanding of their challenges and needs. I have seen some quite remarkable commitment from some of my team, with people going way over and above anything I’ve seen before. Why is this the case? It’s not like they are well paid. There are no bonuses or incremental pay scales. Terms and conditions are pretty basic. Just to be clear, I’m not saying that people working in, or leading larger organisations don’t care as much, it’s just a different environment and often a different culture.  It is so important that we maintain our commitment to the people we are here to support, and although we will do all we can to attract more resources and to grow in order to survive, we won’t do this at any cost. So as we continue to develop, our challenge is to do this in a measured way and never take our eyes off the needs of the people who rely on us.

This certainly resonated with the business mentors (Pilotlighters) we worked with during our time on the Pilotlight programme. Pilotlight have been a massive support and I feel extremely lucky that following winning a Weston Charity Award last year, I was able to access the Pilotlight programme over the last 12 months. The Pilotlighters have been a massive help to me personally and have helped us as an organisation to focus in on the crucial areas so that we don’t get bogged down in the detail. Their skills and experience have been invaluable in many ways, including helping to develop our strategic business plan as well as to support me as a leader. Having finished the Programme now, I can say that even having the chance to discuss everyday issues and challenges with a completely new audience, their friendly and honest approach has helped me and the organisation enormously. It’s helped give us confidence, energy and determination to push forward and take the next steps in our development. I’d like to thank the Garfield Weston Foundation again for selecting LD: North East to receive an award.

If you’re thinking of applying to the Weston Charity Awards this year, don’t hesitate!

Applications for the Weston Charity Awards open on Friday 1st December and close on 12th January. Apply here.

External Environment, Growth & Sustainability, HR & Leadership

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