Charities of Fire

Are big charities better than small charities? Killian Woods discusses falling into the trap of pitting charities against on another

Our modern day society is overwhelmed with the big versus small mentality. It is a fallibility of our outlook on life that comes from a constant need to compartmentalise and our competitive nature to pit everything in an antagonistic contest.

It is difficult to definitively categorize charities as ‘big’ or ‘small’. A rough distinguishing characteristic between the sizes in this case would be the actions of the charities. Bigger charities tend to embark on programmes that see a range of projects taking place on a large scale in various regions of a country. Smaller focused charities have a single specific project that intends on improving the quality of life in a specific area.

Similarly, it is difficult to attest that any one single charity is better than another. On pure monetary turnover and revenue streams, the large-scale international operations like Concern, UNICEF and GOAL eclipse the smaller run charities that have very specific projects. However, cash flow figures should not be used as a standard to define the moral sustenance of a charity.

All charities must follow specific business models that strive to foster a state of financial security and sustainability. This mindset facilitates a charity to prosper like a healthy business, with the one key distinction that the revenue generated will be redistributed towards their desirable area of concern.

This is the basic mantra of all charities, from those running large-scale international operations, such as Concern, to smaller charities that operate on national scale, like Brainwave. With a healthy business model and plan to garner revenue through fundraising in place, charities can aspire to grow.

Irish philanthropist and entrepreneur, Niall Mellon, is the founding member and current CEO of the Niall Mellon Township Trust can attest to this desire for consistent growth. Mellon established the trust in 2002 following a holiday to Cape Town, South Africa, where he was appalled at the living conditions forced upon the lower social classes in the infamous townships.

The trust kick started with an initial €1 million injection of funding from Mellon himself with the overall aim focusing on improving the quality of social accommodation in South Africa through building projects.

Mellon is proud of the catalytic effect his charity has had on the South African government to redirect further funding into building suitable social housing: “We’ve built approximately 20,000 houses and now there are 100,000 people living in Niall Mellon houses and we would like to think that the quality of our houses has inspired the South African government”.

Over the past decade, the Niall Mellon Township Trust has witnessed unbridled success and is a benchmark for any new charity looking for a model that sustains consistent growth. Now ranked as one of Ireland’s top seven most recognised charities, Mellon’s trust is no longer a small obscure entity struggling for exposure or enquiries from benefactors. However, it does provide a bridge-gap between the loosely defined “big charities” and “small charities”, and insight into the benefits of starting small and gradually developing into a viable enterprise.

Mellon acknowledges that starting his trust as a small charity granted a lot of flexibility to his initial operations and helped develop the Niall Mellon Township Trust into one of Ireland’s most recognised charity organisations today: “I think starting it off as a small charity made us more flexible”.

However, he does concede that it is difficult to maintain that flexibility as the organisation develops: “The reality is, as an organisation grows, you end up being less flexible, I suppose, and that’s just a simple reality for any business as it grows in size”.

Trying to pin down what stage his trust is at, Mellon places emphasis on the popularity of his charity nationwide, but also focuses on the principle difference being his role in the organisation. “We are one of the five biggest charities in Ireland. I think the fundamental difference is that I’m a CEO who does it for charity and the other CEOs work for a charity. I take no salary for the work I do, I’ve been involved full-time taking no salary for ten years. Everyday I go into work knowing the reason I’m going to work, and that is to improve the life of people in South Africa.”

Some parallels could be drawn between the Niall Mellon Township Trust and the Rwandan Children’s Project. Like Mellon’s trust initially, Eric O’Flynn’s project in the Eastern region of Rwanda, Rwamagana, is a small venture that intends to build a school that can cater for the local children’s nursery and primary school education cycle.

The project stemmed from O’Flynn’s emotional attachment to the region, which developed during a stint working as a service teacher for primary and secondary school teachers in eastern Rwanda. Linking up with a local charity called DIZA, who help fund the formative education of orphans, he set up his charity to help raise funds for DIZA’s aim to become a sustainable organisation by building a school.

Through online donations and fundraising events nationwide, O’Flynn’s project has witnessed great success in starting to provide that crucial elementary education platform for the children of Rwamgana.

This success has been the result of O’Flynn’s tireless efforts to run the charity as a part-time undertaking. It is this core management aspect of his charity that he feels distinguishes it from other larger operations.

“Everybody has a day job. I do most of the administration. My dad, Donal O’Flynn, is the treasurer and would look after the books. We also have a few other people who do a fair amount of stuff. It’s part-time; nobody in Ireland is paid… Our selling point, what makes us a bit different is obviously that our administration costs are very minimal, we have no building, no wages. We can guarantee anyone who gives us money that 100% of all donations will be spent in Rwanda, which is a bit different. Everything goes to the charity.”

While he respects the advantages of larger organisations, O’Flynn reiterates the benefits of those focusing on a smaller endeavour. “Trocaire and Concern are running programmes. They have a big objective and are more flexible in how they fundraise. That’s good in a way because they can look at the bigger picture, but the advantage of a smaller project is that we don’t need to spend money evaluating projects taking place, we don’t need to spend money sending people out there. With my day job I travel out there anyway as part of my work with the Royal College of Surgeons.”

O’Flynn does place a lot of emphasis on the distribution of donations to Rwanda, ensuring that all donations will go directly to the school, but he does concede that a lack of coordination between numerous small projects can lead to complications. “The disadvantage of small projects is that when you have a hundred charities operating at the same time, there is no great coordination. Where as larger non-governmental organisations (NGOs) can coordinate better and engage with the government. I wouldn’t say small is better than big, or big is better than small. They are two separate things.”

In contrast to the work of the Rwandan Children’s Project, is the work of Barnardos. An international initiative, Barnardos has independent charities working in the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia as well as Ireland. Nationwide it works in forty-two projects across the country delivering services in local communities and it is predominantly focused on providing child and family support.

Although each entity located worldwide is independent, the large-scale intensive aim of the organisation to provide the services, depicts that of a big charity. Like many big charities, the funding received is a varied mix, but mainly reliant on statutory income to supplement revenue from fundraising events.

Rachel Boyne of Barnardos breaks down the sources of revenue streams for the charity. “About 60% of our income comes from statutory funding. We get some from philanthropic organizations, Atlantic Philanthropy has been one foundation. The remainder is through fundraising, like our shops. From fundraising we try and secure funding from all areas, individuals, corporates, events, trusts, and foundations. Basically anywhere we can.”

Unlike the Rwandan Children’s Project, it is not feasible for 100% of donations to be directly distributed to providing their services, a fact that Boyne says is unavoidable. “In 2011, there was a small investment in fundraising. 86 cent of every euro went to work with children and families. Prior to that we maintained a rate of 90 cent directly on the work that we do.”

This redistribution may not directly be going towards the crucial services, but does help cover the administration costs amounted by the have 413 paid staff. Even after assessing the motivations of three different charities that operate on different scale, it is impossible to bestow upon different organisations specific labels that can classify them as big or small.

Possibly a sage parting message delivered to Niall Mellon during a previous meeting with Nelson Mandela, in which the former South African President was commending him for his charity work throughout the years, will draw somewhat of a conclusion. “Always remember, the power of the collective”.

That is how charities should be viewed. Not as big or small, simply a “collective” in which no organisation trumps another. They are simple a group of entities striving to improve the quality of people’s lives worldwide.

To find out more about any of the charities featured in this article, or to make a donation, visit their websites:

The Rwandan Children’s Project –

Niall Mellon Township Trust –

Barnardos –