Large charities win contracts, but how does that square with big society rhetoric?

Are small charities better than big ones? Few questions provoke more ire.

Stephen Bubb, chief executive of Acevo, says it is a “senseless and divisive argument”.

But the new government seems to be following the path trodden by Iain Duncan Smith five years ago when he contrasted “bureaucratic and risk-averse” big charities with “the instinctive understanding” of small, local groups.

It was noticeable that small groups, rather than the sector monoliths, were invited to Downing Street to discuss the big society last month.

This month, Francis Maude, Minister for the Cabinet Office, said the new Communities First fund would be “super-local, seriously neighbourhood-based and almost microscopically granular”.

I’m not quite sure what he meant but it didn’t sound like an invitation to Cancer Research UK to apply.

Yet charities still face pressure to get bigger and more centralised if they want to tango with the government.

The Alzheimer’s Society is a high profile example. It has tightened control over local offices, which has upset some volunteers but was done to improve accountability and enable the charity to win more contracts from the government.

I interviewed Jeremy Hughes yesterday, who, it was announced this week, is leaving Breakthrough Breast Cancer to become the society’s chief executive. He thinks cancer charities’ model of closer collaboration with government is the way to go if you want to win contracts and influence people.

It’s difficult to argue with that, yet it’s hard to see how it squares with the ‘big society’.

Like it or not, I suspect the size issue will be one of the key themes of the years ahead.

8 Responses to “Large charities win contracts, but how does that square with big society rhetoric?”

  1. alex fox

    I agree that the big/small national/ local debate is facile. NAAPS is national but small. Our network is large and UK wide, but our members are family-based services (Shared Lives) and micro-enterprises in social care. We are nothing without our members. Equally our members would struggle to share their learning or have a national voice without us. @alexatnaaps

  2. Leon Kreitzman

    It sounds as though Mr Bubb should get out more. Mr Duncan Smith has a point. While the issue of big and national and/or small and local may well be divisive it is by no means senseless.If a charity is to remain as a charity, as opposed to a corporation by another name, it may well need to retain the accountability ,compassion and concern of the small and local.As for Mr Hughes, cancer is not a good case to argue. Cancer research is big science and cancer care is big care . Big resources can only come through a national prioritisation. The risk is that close collaboration can become thralldom to the state .
    Divisiveness is not always a bad thing. Debate can be cathartic. A reluctance to engage can lead to complacency and conservatism of the non-political kind.

  3. Ernest Thompson

    Are small charities better than big ones? Stephen Bubb says that is a “senseless and divisive argument”
    But then he would be likely to say that wouldn’t he?
    it would seem that in the eyes of the public (as per the recent survey featured in the Third Sector)small charities are better than large ones in a number of important aspects.
    if the government is really serious about a “big society” concept, then surely this public perception needs to be investigated, before large charities are simply handed more and bigger contracts.
    In the interests of accuracy, the Alzheimer’s Society didn’t just “tighten control over local offices” It disbanded the branch network on which the Society was built, and summarily dismissed all locally elected committees (made up of local members of the Society. And it didn’t just upset some volunteers, but it alienated many long-standing volunteers (and has led to breakaway groups being formed) It is certainly difficult to see how such behaviour “squares with the big society” and the concept of more local accountability

  4. Tim

    I am pleasantly surprised by Iain Duncan Smith’s comments and fully agree.

    I hope that the lion’s share of the money goes to the small charities. Big charities have shown time and time again that they only care about money and treat their volunteers and beneficiaries as if they are dispensable. That’s my feeling as a beneficiary.

  5. John Clarke

    There is plenty of opportunity for volunteering bodies to put themselves out there on the back of the success of the Olympic volunteers. Many have been featured in local papers, blogs and the like, using the Olympic ‘hook’ to convince editors and publishers that what they have been doing for years is finally newsworthy.

    However, the government has been more of a hindrance than a help. I too looked on with dismay at the creation of this new organisation, which simply does what a conservative government does best – assume everyone working in the third sector is stupid and needs an expensive, useless body run on ‘business principles’ to oversee them, tell them what to do and waste a lot of money that could be better spent by the organisations themselves.

  6. Janet Thorne

    I can only agree with Rob – thrilled that the Olympics has raised the profile of volunteering, and updated the image of volunteering in the public mind but very disappointed that a new organisation is being set up which will duplicate rather than support the organisations who have the expertise and infrastructure to do the work. And 100% agree that the place where investment is most needed is in supporting more organisations to engage with volunteers more creatively and productively.


    I can hardly belive that the government is seriously going to invets in YET ANOTHER volunteering organisation. Please don’t do it – again!

  8. Chris Hornet

    Nick Hurd’s very words were that they would build on what works rather than spending money on ‘a lunch, a launch and a logo’. Although to be fair Join In was always about getting more people involved in sport rather than volunteering (which of course means that Govt hasn’t put any money directly into a volunteering legacy)

    Maybe we should just accept that there was never going to be an Olympic volunteering ‘legacy’. There was certainly never any real impetus from LOCOG/Govt for a volunteering legacy beforehand so why should we expect one to suddenly appear? Lets enjoy the limelight that volunteers and volunteering gained during the Olympics, learn a few lessons from it, be better as organisations at involving and manging volunteers and get back to normal life, rather than wait for this mythical beast to appear.


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