CEO’s Blog – 11/12/2020

It has been debated for several years within the charity world about the shape of our future as a sector.  Particularly asking:
  1. Are there too many charities doing the same or similar things; and
  2. Have small charities had their day in the sun and now be replaced with larger organsations

Now, as a small charity ourselves, you would expect us to vigorously object to the mergers, take-overs or simple replacement of smaller charities by the big boys.  However, being the fair and reasonable people we are at The Bridge Trust, we do appreciate that there are pros and cons to both approaches.

For example, we find that being a small charity we can struggle with proportionately higher costs in some areas of our work.  For example, if we support 20 clients, we need one person to manage our support team.  If we were large enough to support 30 clients, we would still only need that one person to manage the team.  In other words, as a small charity it is difficult to leverage some economies of scale.  We can do some things to off-set this by perhaps employing a number of part-time staff instead of full-time, or by introducing flexible working hours and so forth, but the reality is that we are limited in what we can change if we are to continue to achieve those all-important outcomes for our clients.

However, being a small, and particularly a local charity, focussed on a small range of services has distinct advantages over a large conglomerate.  For example, it has facilitated us to become experts at what we do, rather than being mediocre trying to provide too many services.  We can understand the local need and we can react to changing needs and external circumstances very quickly, and sometimes temporarily.   Recently we “threw our rule book out the window” in order to help a very vulnerable rough sleeper.  If we followed procedure and process and previously agreed budgetary constraints, that person would still be sleeping rough and exposed to exploitation and other dangers.  However, I was able to take an immediate decision, the team swung into action the same morning and this person was offered a safe and secure home to live in, before they had to face another night in the cold and rain.  Every person we support we need to be funded for, but we now support this person for free as no one would fund her place.  It may sound melodramatic but a person’s life was at risk and we reacted immediately.  Our experience with larger organisations is that they would  either not contemplate such action (likely due to being driven by their bottom-line) or if they did, would take an age to get it sanctioned by whatever committee or Board or whatever, as their rules dictated.

In April 2019 our statutory funding from the County Council was removed and given to a different, £multi-million organisation – we simply didn’t get a look-in as we were too small.

Perhaps KCC saved a substantial amount of money by doing this, but as their funding to us had been frozen for 6 years and they already paid about 2/3rds of what the service actually cost anyway, I don’t think there would be much scope to save too much of the £121,000 they paid us, although they have reduced the scope of the service they are now funding as well so maybe that’s where their savings lie.

Be that as it may, this reduced the financial capacity of the Trust by around ¼, and made us an even smaller charity than we were before and we have been agonising for a couple of years now over how we can survive this, long-term; can we continue providing the service we always have, how can we change our business model to respond to this, can we reduce our cost-base even more and can we raise additional income elsewhere?

So what did we do? Well, let me answer that, not with wishful thinking but by reporting on our actions.  Instead of cutting our staff costs further than we have already, we are now recruiting to increase the work we can do, we opened an additional 5 bedroom property in Tonbridge to expand our services further and we are currently in the process of buying 3 x 1 bed properties for a local Council’s “Housing First” project.  These are not reckless decisions, throwing caution to the wind – we have not survived for over 30 years by doing that.  No, these are reasoned actions, taken after much consideration of how best to use our Reserves, careful planning and a determination to continue to do as much as we can for the homeless people in our community.  We have vowed to continue to do what we do for as long as our service is needed – and believe me, it still is and will be for the foreseeable future.

It may be an inevitability that only the larger organisations can survive in the current economic and commissioning environment and that in due course we may need to re-invent who we are if we want our service to continue, but in any event we know we are needed and we know that our model works well for the local community we work within.