6 things you need to know about small charities


At the start of Small Charity Week, Jon Dean provides an overview of key pieces of research outlining the value small charities and key issues affecting them.

As Small Charity Week starts, it is important to think about the specific contribution that small charities make to communities throughout the UK and across the world. Small charities (defined by NCVO as those with annual income of under £100k, but by the now-closed Small Charities Coalition as those with annual income of under £1m) make up the vast majority of charities in the UK. They are often more trusted, but can be overlooked in discourses about ‘the sector’. Here are six pieces of recent social research about various aspects of the small charity experience—such as the value they provided during the pandemic, how they should think about branding, and how they may be more efficient than larger organisations–that may be of interest to practitioners working for small (or big!) charities.

Chris Dayson, Leila Baker, James Rees, Ellen Bennett, Beth Patmore, Katie Turner, Carol Jacklin-Jarvis, and Vita Terry

Drawing on extensive data from four case study localities originally studied in 2018 (see The Value of Small report here), this study revisits these areas, to explore the distinctive contribution, value and experiences of smaller charities in England and Wales during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Overall, the report shows how small charities ‘showed up’ and then ‘stuck around’, using their position of trust within communities experiencing complex social issues to support people when they were needed most. The authors show how small charities’ contributions contrasted to parts of the public sector, who were slower to react—and provided longer term support than much mutual aid, which dissipated over time.

David Kane and Tania Cohen

Voluntary sector infrastructure organisations enable communities to influence decision-making, build partnerships, networks, and capacity, and are often central to encouraging volunteering opportunities. There are around 700 infrastructure organisations in the UK, and many of these are small: Kane and Cohen show that 80% of these have incomes under £1m, and 29% have income sunder £100k. Worryingly, though, in the period 2011-22 the number of national infrastructure bodies fell by around 4%, while the number of local infrastructure bodies fell by around 25%. As sector spending has grown, infrastructure spending has stayed flat, meaning that a smaller number of voluntary sector infrastructure bodies have had to spread their resources more thinly. This report makes clear the very fragile ecosystem small, local infrastructure organisations are facing.

Hans van der Heijden

Exploring data from the Netherlands, this useful report compares the efficiency in how much small and large charities spend on programs, administration, and fundraising. It finds that program and administrative spending efficiency are pretty similar in smaller and larger-sized charities, with no economies of scale for larger charities. Further, it reveals how smaller charities report considerably better fundraising efficiencies, with it taking €8 to raise €100, with €15 for larger organisations. If your small organisation wants to argue that you maybe spend money better that larger organisations, this seems pretty helpful evidence.

Elizabeth Stebbins and Rosanne Hartman

Drawing on marketing and communications expertise, this article reports on how organizations construct distinctive ‘brand personalities’ as a means of attracting consumers or donors and cultivating long-term relationships. The authors survey the donors to five small charities in one city in the US. They find that these charities have developed distinctive brand personalities, and that a clear relationship exists between donors’ perceptions of brand personality and their giving—with more relevant and differentiating brand personalities leading to stronger relationships. Smaller charities need to identify and understand their distinctive traits that define who they are. It’s suggested that organisations ask their key stakeholders and long-term supporters which personality traits they attribute to the organization. Building on what you do well among those who support you can be leveraged to gain the attention of would-be supporters.

A one-stop shop for a large amount of data collated from various sources about small charities in England and Wales. Broken down into lots of easy to use sub-sections (such as local area, or cause area) and with lots of insight reports about specific topics (such as digital technology in small charities, or equalities issues), this site is very much like the NCVO Almanac, but focused on charities with less than £1m in income.

Paschal Ohalehi

Based on Charity Commission data and interviews with charity trustees, this report raises awareness of fraud in small charities and the wider implications for the voluntary sector. Mechanisms for fraud detection and prevention are more prevalent in large charities than small charities, with greater losses in small charities due to a lack in division of labour, poor governance, and relative weakness or absence of control systems for fraud prevention. There are also several recommendations: small charities need to appoint or designate staff to have special responsibility for fraud prevention policies and investigation, with thorough training, and risk assessment made a regular fixture on the trustee board meeting agenda.

You can check out the amazing line-up of events for Small Charity Week here. Making use of research and evaluation is one key part of small charities’ work, especially when it comes to funding applications. There’s an enormous amount of information out there, and hopefully this material has proven useful in making the case for small charities. If you are from a small charity and want to talk to a sector researcher about what we know, what we don’t, and what can be helpful from a research perspective, explore the work of the Voluntary Sector Studies Network.


Jon Dean is Associate Professor in Politics and Sociology at Sheffield Hallam University, and the Chair of VSSN. His research focuses on the sociology of the charity sector and charitable giving, and inequalities within volunteering. His book, The Good Glow: Charity and the Symbolic Power of Doing Good, was released in 2020.

This is the first in a new blog series from VSSN called Things you need to know. Guest writers will provide short overviews of useful pieces of research and learning about key topics within voluntary sector studies. If you would like to write for this series, please email: execofficer@vssn.org.uk.