Structural and strategic devolution in charities – how far should charities go?

White woman wearing sunglasses looks at a map on a sunny day

Structural and strategic devolution in charities – how far should charities go?

With over 20 years since power was devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s a good time to find out how well charities have adapted their structures, strategies and staffing to respond to devolution.
Joe Saxton

Take our simple quiz to decide how devolved your charity really is (or keep scrolling if you're just here for the blog)

With over 20 years since power was devolved to Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, it’s a good time to find out how well charities have adapted their structures, strategies and staffing to respond to devolution. Take this simple quiz to find out how devolved you are, and then read our accompanying blog here.

Do you have trustees who represent/come from the different nations in which you work?

  1. Yes, and it’s built into our constitution/processes
  2. Yes, and it’s done informally
  3. No, not really

Do you have an individual/team who is responsible for the work in each of your countries in the UK?

  1. Yes, and they have full responsibility for our work in each country
  2. Yes, but HQ still line manage some of the staff in each country
  3. We don’t have staff in country

Does your strategic plan look at the activities in the nations of the UK where you work?

  1. Each country has its own part of the strategic plans
  2. Each country gets a mention when it is relevant for the wider plan
  3. All of our strategic and business plans are by discipline or goal not geography

When did your CEO last visit the nations of the UK where you work (Covid aside)?

  1. Our CEO meets in person or virtually with devolved staff several times a year
  2. Our CEO meets devolved staff when there is a specific need or purpose
  3. Our CEO is a very busy person

Are your budgets devolved to the nations where you work?

  1. All expenditure is handled at the country level
  2. Some budgets are held in country and some by HQ
  3. All budgets are held by the functional teams

Legal & Constitutional
How are you legally structured in the countries where you work?

  1. We are a separately registered charity in each country where we work
  2. We have a separate advisory council or equivalent in each country, but one charity
  3. We are one big happy charity united under a single trustee board

Branding and names
How does your brand strategy account for devolution?

  1. We have separate and distinct names/brands in each country
  2. We have the same name but plonk ‘Cymru’ or ‘Scotland’ at the end
  3. We have one name and one brand across the countries where we work

How does your public affairs and campaigning account for devolution?

  1. We consider how each aspect of our work fits within the different laws in each country and lobby accordingly in each nation
  2. We have a UK policy, but take some notice of how it may play in each nation
  3. We have one UK-wide political strategy, regardless of whether it applies in each nation

How do your publications take account of devolution?

  1. We always check that the information in our publications applies across all the nations and fits in with local laws, including the Welsh and other languages
  2. We add in something in all our publications warning people to check it applies in their nation.
  3. We have one set of publications for the whole of the UK

How did your charity do?

Mostly 1’s?   Your charity is pretty highly devolved

Mostly 2’s?   Your charity has a mix of devolved and centralised activities

Mostly 3’s?   Devolution appears to have passed your charity by

If you want to join the discussion about how charities devolve their activities you can make comments at the end of the blog, or tweet us @nfpSynergy @SaxtonJoe

Structural and strategic devolution in charities – how far should charities go?

With over twenty years since political devolution became reality in the UK, our quiz is of course a simplistic and crude tool for looking at devolution in charities. In reality, how a charity does devolution is more nuanced than 1), 2) or 3) answers. There are some charities for whom devolution may be politically and culturally appropriate, but strategically irrelevant. Why would a medical research charity want to be devolved when it is geared to choosing the best research in the best universities? Why would an overseas development charity want to be devolved in a country where it runs no programmes? And that remains the thinking in a fair number of larger charities.

Devolving constitution and governance

Perhaps the simplest way of devolving is changes to the trustee board. It’s relatively easy (and low cost) to have trustees who are from the respective devolved nation in question. Though if this was the only change made it would probably be relatively ineffective in changing the way that a charity addresses devolution – though it might look good externally!! A more effective approach is to have a local advisory board who can meet regularly and advise on what a charity needs to do in-country. Though even that is of course relatively meaningless without in-country staff and an in-country budget.

Devolving PR and political activities

The area that has most clearly been devolved as a result of the political changes of the Blair government in 1997-2000 is political affairs and media work. There is so much vibrant work going on in the three devolved parliaments and the local media outlets, that any charity that produces a single UK political or media structure is doomed to irrelevance in the devolved nations. As a result, all but the smallest charities who worked across more than one UK nation have devolved their media and political structures.

Is fundraising better devolved or centralised?

Fundraising is not such a clear-cut issue. Too often fundraising can be accused of being DINOs – devolving in name only. The same appeal pack has a Scottish address, reply envelope, and signatory on it - but the content is basically the same. The answer about fundraising devolution probably depends on the types of fundraising. Where events, major donors, retail, and community fundraising are concerned then devolution is vital.

But in terms of individual fundraising, particularly for organisations that don’t do their work on the ground, then devolution may have few economic benefits. If services are being delivered on the ground in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland then even individual charities may discover that their fundraising would benefit from adapting their appeals to in-country work.   Not long ago the Chartered Institute of Fundraising published research showing that, done in the right way, fundraising in the Welsh language raised more money in some areas of Wales.   The Welsh public (and the spirit of the law) expects bilingual communications. 

Having a ‘head of country’: functional control vs geographic control

Many charities and companies struggle with the dilemma of whether functional control or geographical control makes more sense. In Apple, for example, functional management is very much the rule (, whereas many companies would claim that devolved management is much more effective.

In essence, the debate is about whether an organisation works better by tailoring itself to local conditions, or by having a more homogenous structure. Charities have exactly the same dilemma – though more are probably likely to have the compromise of a ‘Head of Country’ with some budget responsibility or management control.

Where devolution makes most sense

  • For political and PR work where needed under the local situation for lobbying work or securing coverage in local media
  • For fundraising events and community fundraising where activities can be most appropriately tailored to local situation
  • At the governance and constitutional level where board structures can ensure that work on the ground is support by structures that enhance understanding and impact on the staff-driven activities

And where devolution probably makes least sense

  • Where there is no programme work in-country (as with an overseas development charity) or programme work is allocated on a meritocratic basis (as with medical research). It is pointless to have a devolved programme when the strategy for the mission-based work is driven by other priorities – such as funding or need.
  • Where integration, not devolution, is the priority. There are almost no charities that have divided themselves into separate devolved charitable entities, and there are plenty where more integration, not more siloed working, would make sense to increase the impact of fundraising or lobbying work.

There is little in writing (that I can find, though this blog from the brilliant Martin Price is very relevant - ) about how charities who operate across several (UK) countries should or do devolve their activities. It’s not a simple issue for any charity to decide how much of its work it should devolve. It would be useful for many charities to have more guidance on where devolution makes most sense, and where it is least appropriate. It is also, I suspect, an area where the rhetoric (of how fantastically devolved a charity is) and the reality (of how budgets and structures are, realistically, fairly centralised) are far apart.

Add new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
  • Web page addresses and email addresses turn into links automatically.