Charities are run by inspirational people who need our support more than ever
The highlight of my week was an all too brief visit to the open day at Children North East held at their WEYES project on the West Road in Newcastle. I was shown around by a bright young volunteer and then spoke to a series of staff about their work.
First, Lesley Henderson, running NewPIP, one of seven pilot schemes offering intensive counselling to young mums and dads in the belief that help in the first years of a child’s life prevents trouble later. This was seriously well thought out work and it seemed a no brainer to me.
Then on to the Whoops scheme which makes sure that young children are safe at home and the Youth Link peer mentors scheme which trains 18 year olds to support young teenagers. I shuddered to think how I can have coped with that role in my youth.
Next, Poverty Proofing the School Day which offers a week long audit for schools to make sure that children from disadvantaged homes get the most out of their education. The scheme was developed by CNE and is being delivered around the country. Finally the sexual health clinic, a fully equipped room with a confidential service fed by outreach sessions in schools and colleges.
More young volunteers offered me tea and cake, told me about the young people’s drop in sessions at WEYES and signed me up for a fund raising event in a pizzeria on Saturday. I nodded in passing to the besuited Chief Executive, Jeremy Cripps, and reminisced with one of the management team about a past Chief Executive and personal friend, Joy Higginson, sadly no longer with us, who would have so proud of what has been achieved.
No wonder Children North East was North East Charity of the Year in 2016. Here was a series of innovative schemes, some just practical and others policy making, presented articulately and passionately. They take this 126 year old charity that originally took poor children for a day out to the seaside, slap bang into the present day.
Children North East restored my faith after picking my way through a series of reports casting doubt on the future of charities. On Sunday of all days, but still failing to grab the headlines, the House Of Lord select committee report chipped away at government policy on regulation and commissioning and almost convinced me of value of a thoughtful second chamber.
The public has lost trust in charities and My Lords call for better governance. They recommend improved selection, rotation and training of trustees and make a sensible idea that companies give staff time off to sit on charity boards. They uphold the cherished principle that trustees should not be paid for their time.
As a veteran and increasingly intolerant trustee, I have endured more than my fair share of frustration, crisis and scandals but I do not think that the governance of charities is any better or worse than public authorities or medium sized business. It is just that the public expects us to be holier than thou. Everything palls in comparison with Tescos’s £129m fine for false accounting which passed by almost without comment last week.
A punchy report from Lloyds Bank Foundation warns that charities must change to keep up with the times. They are a service industry and digitalisation is the order of the day. Face to face meetings for advice, information and support will be out dated and too expensive in a few years time. I hope that the soothsayers are wrong as nothing beats looking people in the eye with a little human kindness.
An IPPR North survey by the redoubtable Tony Chapman points out that charities perforce spend too much time on fundraising and grant applications to the detriment of strategy and operations. Get that right first, Chapman argues, and the funding will follow. As a trustee of a grant making trust, I am depressed to see so many medium sized charities desperately seeking money just to get through the next twelve months and having little hope of a long term future.
A friend who volunteers for a bereavement counselling service tells me that since the local authority withdrew its grant to save money, it has been forced to make the administrator redundant and expect new volunteers to pay for their own training. This cannot continue.
There has been an unwritten deal for as long as I can remember that selfless volunteering, madcap fundraising and philanthropic grants are under written by public funding. It is the small frontline charities like bereavement services, the Lloyds Bank report warns, that are most at risk in these hard times.
My cousins in the United States spend every Friday at an extravagant charity fundraiser and I really hope we don’t go that way here. They are the most inefficient ways of raising money and favour the cuddly causes with well connected friends.
I am continually amazed by the creativity, perseverance and self sacrifice of people running charities. They often would not fit into more bureaucratic organisations. They come up with the best new ideas and get to places that others cannot reach. If charities become the easy pickings of austerity, we will lose something precious in our civic life and all be the poorer.
Published in Newcastle Journal 4th April 2017