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Being successful when a small fish in a big pond

Operating a smaller charity can be daunting and does come with its own hurdles, but I find it so rewarding as our size allows us to make a global difference whilst still being able to offer support on a more individual and personal level. As CEO of a small charity, the Head & Neck Cancer Foundation, I find everything is easier, friendlier and kinder.

As a smaller organisation, we can only be envious of the greater reach and funds that a large charity can benefit from. However, I have never seen this as a limiting factor but simply a hurdle that encourages us to do things differently and I am so proud of what we are achieving. For such a small charity we are breaking ground through our research and development and have pioneered numerous new treatments that are becoming widely adopted among UK and global cancer units.

After many years of working with smaller charities and third sector organisations, here are my top tips to success when you are up against the big fish:

Building supporters with quality

Being a small charity means we do not get the volume of donations that more well known charities do. This means that we need to be at the top of our game, and it motivates me to never become sloppy or do things the easy way. We are constantly pushing to provide quality fundraisers and events that will engage our supporters and attract new ones.

In a situation where you may not have as many donors as larger charities, it is so important to connect and interact with your community to keep them engaged with your cause and to promote regular donations.

At HNCF everything is personal. If you contact us, I will respond personally. If you raise money for us, our trustee Sir Frederick Hervey-Bathurst sends you a handwritten letter of thanks. If you have a medical question, one of our expert trustees will respond. If you need support, our Facebook supporters and friends will contact you one-to-one. This is something that larger charities are not able to do.

Although we are making differences on a global scale, we pride ourselves on being small and perfectly formed. It is not a numbers game, and this means that we can offer closer and more valuable support to those within our reach. By taking this approach, we have created a group of wonderful, loyal supporters who believe in what we do.

Work to your strengths

Whilst we do encounter hurdles, there are many strengths in being a small charity and it is important that you harness these when the big fish cannot, to stay one step ahead. Being smaller means we can be fluid and quick to respond - Covid-19 showed us that. When making decisions there are fewer voices that need to be heard so we can take action quickly.

Having a compact but talented team means that we all know each other’s skills and expertise and are happy to let others lead and advise in specific areas. Larger charities may be saturated and have additional structures within their teams that can slow them down in this sense.

Work with other charities

Rather than looking at similar charities as competition, it is important to explore ways in which you can work together. Teaming up with other charities is a great way to benefit from each other’s reach and expertise.

In my view, smaller charities should focus on specific issues rather than generic ones. As a result of this, I find we are less competitive and can create strong informal collaborations with other experts and colleagues to achieve a shared mission. Sharing our knowledge with other likeminded organisations can only have a better outcome for our patients.

As a smaller charity looking specifically at head and neck cancers, we often find that we are just one branch of a larger tree. A really powerful collaboration idea is to lobby together with other charities working towards a larger, overarching goal.

HNCF did this as part of HPV Action, a group which campaigned for universal vaccination for over five years until the government’s vaccination advisory committee changed its mind and finally decided in 2019 that HPV vaccination should be extended to adolescent boys and not only girls.

More recently, we have collaborated with more than 46 other cancer charities, on behalf of people with cancer, to recommend solutions for some of the biggest issues that the next government will face post Covid 19.

Together we created the One Cancer Voice charity coalition and have highlighted the importance of governments across the UK quickly turning their ambitions of restoring and transforming cancer services into a reality. It is so wonderful to see such progress being achieved through collaboration and I hope that our work can act as an example and a catalyst to encourage you to do the same.

Make a difference

No matter the size, a successful charity is one that makes a difference. We play a vital role in society, and everyone benefits from that. I urge all charities to recognise the amazing things that they are achieving rather than comparing themselves to others. We all help in lots of different ways - giving information and direction, leading research and development or raising awareness of an issue. Like most charities we do a mix of these things.

All charities, big or small, bring together people who care about a cause so that they can make a difference. Forget about size. Even the smallest charities can create huge positive impact as long they are constantly evolving and doing things differently.

My final piece of advice to other smaller charities which feel they are competing with the larger charities is to stop. Stop feeling like you’re competing and stop trying to compete. Know your niche, focus on what you do and do it well.

Head & Neck Cancer Foundation’s Michelle Vickers – being smaller means we can be fluid and quick to respond.
"Teaming up with other charities is a great way to benefit from each other’s reach and expertise."