Global Development Institute Blog

Yesterday the Global Development Institute’s David Hulme represented a research project run jointly by GDI and SIID (the University of Sheffield), at the Small Charities International Development Debate in the House of Lords. The research project is seeking to map and give insight into the operations of and relationships within the UK-based international development NGO (INGO) sector.

Hosted by the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI), the debate was part of FSI’s Small Charity Week, and asked ‘will small international development charities survive?’ David took the affirmative, as did S.A.L.V.E. International CEO Nicola Sansom and SNP National Secretary and Westminster Spokesperson on International Development Patrick Grady. On the opposing team were campaigner, writer and consultant on NGO strategy Deborah Doane, and founder and CEO of Teach a Man to Fish, Nik Kafka. The debate was chaired by Bibi Van der Zee, Editor at the Guardian’s Global Development Professional Network.

Speaking first, Nicola Sansom pointed out that small INGOs are risk-takers, have low overheads and develop and maintain strong networks. She also noted that increasingly affordable comms routes mean costs are less of a barrier to awareness-raising, and also make it easier for charities to exercise transparency with donors and other stakeholders. David also made a case for small INGOs’ capacity for networking and partnerships, pointing out that they play an important role in connecting complex debates at an interpersonal, community level and in diversifying ‘official’ development messaging and activity. He argued that plenty of donors are still looking to engage with small INGOs in their capacity as an important, active component of civil society. However, as the current SIID & GDI mapping research has so far shown, David acknowledged that the biggest 9% of UK NGOs receive 90% of all development spending, and that if small charities are to survive there exists a clear need for better distribution of funds.

The SNP’s Patrick Grady argued that small INGOs can and should survive, and therefore that they will. He emphasised that there will always be a desire amongst people at the grassroots to contribute to humanitarian causes, as donors and volunteers. He also noted that the larger INGOs often rely on smaller partners for actual, in-country project delivery, concluding that there is certainly a need for flexibility and adaptability as the development sector continues to change, but that its reforming will include big opportunities for small INGOs.

The opposition presented some convincing counterpoints, with Deborah Doane taking the stance that small charities are unlikely to survive in their current form. She made the point that NGOs and donors alike are feeling the financial pinch, and that, generally speaking, philanthrocapitalists tend to push small INGOs to operate as social enterprises not charities, and in so-doing undermine the charity model. She also noted a growing hostility toward donors on the part of recipients in the Global South, and a desire amongst the latter to take ownership of their countries’ development needs. She summarised by saying small INGOs won’t survive as they are today because of: the changing funding environment; the global assault on civil society; and the fact they’re ‘too damn authentic’.

Nik Kafka agreed that the current funding environment is not conducive to the survival of small charities; donors are increasingly ‘honing in’ on causes with very specific mandates (such as ‘educating girls in Uganda’), rather than more general approaches that allow for a wider range of small INGOs to benefit. He also argued that the costs of conclusively monitoring and demonstrating impact are rising. Similarly, while technology is generally cheaper now, it is still costly to purpose-build tools (like apps) that could improve operational efficiency; funds that small INGOs don’t tend to have. Conversely, he did make the point that while big INGOs may be good at securing donor support, they don’t always have the specialist knowledge needed for effective project delivery.

Ultimately, there was general consensus that there is a future for the small charity cohort, but that adaptability and an openness to working collaboratively are crucial. It was noted by FSI co-founder and Chief Executive Pauline Broomhead that networking is a strength for many small charities, but not all are as good at developing these connections into active collaborations and partnerships.

The debate provided compelling context for the SIID and GDI mapping project. Research is still in progress, but has produced interesting preliminary findings, including that:

1. Growth of the sector was most vigorous in the mid-2000s. But it is premature to view current (downward) trends as indicative of a long term decline in vigour of growth in numbers of organisations

2. The development sector is substantial, with expenditure equalling approximately 50% of current ODA

3. Distribution of expenditure is highly unequal, with less than 9% of organisations accounting for nearly 90% of expenditure (and 1% accounting for 50% of expenditure)

4. The sector has experienced growth generally, but the largest organisations experienced a dip in expenditure in 2012. Smaller organisations have experienced a decline in expenditure in recent years

5. Change in expenditure is highly variable, with the smaller organisations most likely to experience declines from one year to the next

More information on the project is available at on the Mapping Development NGOs website.

Small Charity Week was first established by the Foundation for Social Improvement (FSI) in 2010, to celebrate and raise the profile of the small charity sector. The week is one of a series of activities and initiatives to support and raise awareness of the hundreds and thousands of small charities that, every day, make a huge difference to vulnerable communities right across the UK and the rest of the world. Thank you to the organisers for their work, and what was a thought-provoking event!

Blog by Sarah Illingworth for SIID.