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Blog: Reflections on UK and USA charitable organisations

Posted on July 19 2016 in News & Updates

by Patrick Harman, Hayden-Harman Foundation, USA

During January to April 2016, Dr Patrick Harman had a Fulbright Scholarship to spend time with the Imagine North East research team based at Durham University. Imagine North East has been working on issues related to community development in Benwell (West End of Newcastle) and North Shields, both sites of the first UK anti-poverty projects in the 1970s.

PIMG_4129atrick worked alongside Sarah Banks (the research coordinator), Andrea Armstrong (researcher), Emma Haggie (administrator) and 12 Tyneside-based community partner organisations. He attended project meetings, helped organise two workshops in Newcastle and North Shields, visited community organisations and conducted interviews with key people in the third sector and local government.

The organisations had a community development remit, from those providing general community-based activities and services to those working in more specialised fields such as community health and detached youth work.


Having worked a long time in the third sector in the USA, I was looking forward to learning how charitable organisations operated in the UK as a part of my Fulbright experience. What would be similar to how they operated in the States? What would be different? What could I learn that would be useful to share with others?


Perhaps it is not surprising but the commitment and passion that I saw is what I experience in the States. The people I met were determined to make a difference with the people using their services. They typically saw their work not as a ‘job’ but a way of life. They understood that long-term engagement was necessary to make an impact.

As in the States, organisations are often created out of community need. For example, in the Benwell neighbourhood in Newcastle and in North Shields, a number of organisations were created as a result of regeneration efforts. This process has also occurred in High Point, the city which is the main focus of my work.

The role of the Executive Director was also similar. Their main task is to keep the organisation financially solvent and seek growth opportunities. They do this by setting the vision and keeping their organisation focused on its mission.

As in the States, this task has become much more difficult in these ‘new normal’ times of budget cuts and increased demand. Operational adjustments became the focus of my research during my time in Durham and I will have much more to say about this topic after analysing the data I collected.


There are also a number of differences that I observed. Many charitable organisations that I learned about focused on smaller patches than in the States, where most organisations have a broader focus, typically at a city-wide level. My sense is that this is a more effective approach as the sustained interactions with people in a particular geography are deeper and, as a result, more effective relationships are developed. Consequently, bigger impacts can be created.

The availability of local public funding differs between the countries. While the percent of revenues from all government sources is similar between the UK and USA, the role of local government is very different. Generally speaking, there is much less local governmental support of charitable organisations in the States than in the UK. In fact, our local county government eliminated grants for social service organisations this year.

One significant difference between the two countries is the degree of individual giving. In the US, approximately two-thirds of individuals give to charity compared to a little over half in the UK. The total giving amount is also greater with giving at 2% of GDP in the USA compared with 0.8% in the UK.

Increasing individual giving is an area that UK charities can focus on to diversify their revenue sources. Individual donors can also support organisations as they face potential cuts in government funding by speaking out publicly in support of the work that the organisation does to impact the community.

A final area of difference is the utilisation of infrastructure organisations. I was surprised to find the existence of so many of these organisations in the UK. I conducted interviews with several of these organisations and found them to be an incredibly valuable resource in providing support to charities in a variety of ways – from advocacy for the sector to organisational development to back office support.

I believe that we need more of these types of organisations in the States. While there are numerous state and national organisations, there are few that focus on smaller geographical areas. By focusing on smaller areas, charitable organisations can be supported and nurtured with more intensive approaches. Consequently, the effectiveness of the sector can be improved to create a better world, which is why we all do the work that we do.

I want to add a final note about my being a very small part of the Imagine project. I give great credit to the many folks who developed and implemented this wonderful project. The voices of those affected by economic shifts and policy changes are not heard often enough. This project allowed these voices to not only be heard but allowed them to be heard in a meaningful and sustained manner. I hope engagement with these many communities can be sustained and positive impacts continue to accrue.