For a man who has spent most of his career fighting for mainstream causes, Neil Churchill had an unorthodox introduction to the world of campaigning. It was during a stint attempting to win a posthumous reprieve for Derek Bentley, the last man to be hanged in Britain, that Age Concern's director of communications caught the campaigning bug. Churchill met Iris Bentley, who ran a lifelong campaign for her brother's reprieve, while working in local government. "She could be very persuasive and convinced me I should help the campaign,
In order to pursue his interest in campaigning, he joined the voluntary sector as a press officer at Barnardo's. He has worked in the sector ever since, apart from a short stint at a think-tank. "The voluntary sector gives you a real opportunity to achieve change. There aren't many fields where you can do this without being under huge amounts of pressure and publicity,
But Churchill's role at Age Concern has its stresses. The charity is very active in campaigning on local, national and international levels.
Indeed, when we met he was on his way to a meeting in Brussels via Bournemouth, where he was due to have talks with local government representatives.
He is also playing a pivotal role in the recent changes sweeping the organisation. Age Concern is consulting on the introduction of a membership scheme and rebrand which Churchill hopes will help the organisation become more representative and accountable to beneficiaries.
The move comes in the wake of the recent abandoned merger talks with Help the Aged which floundered when it was decided that there were sufficient differences to remain separate. "There are still areas of duplication we need to talk about, but we are building good relations and starting to see more good joint working,
But it is the rebranding and membership scheme that are of more pressing importance for the charity. Age Concern represents the over-50s, a very diverse range of people, and the challenge is to create an organisation that relates to all of this group. There are currently 12 million over-50s in the UK and despite the fact that 80 per cent of the country's wealth is with the over-50s, this age group includes some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of society. Apart from the financial gap, there is also a great disparity in the requirements of its members due to age.
Someone in their 50s has different needs to a person aged 90, although they may share some issues in common such as increasing dependence.
Age Concern has found that the 50 to 60 age group, who may still be working and leading active lives, do not view it as relevant to their needs. Churchill wants the organisation to be more representative of this so-called "younger older
group when campaigning about age discrimination but is anxious that the older, more vulnerable clients should not be neglected either.
The question has arisen as to whether the organisation can answer all these needs under its current name, although it seems unlikely that the Age Concern name will disappear altogether. Instead a separate brand may emerge to cater for the 50 to 70 age group.
The rebranding also aims to unite an organisation with several strands.
It currently has Age Concern the charity and a trading arm, and now the membership scheme will add yet another element to an already complex organisation.
"We must overcome any danger of mixed messages. People might see the charity, the trading arm and then the membership scheme and not know what we are,
The membership scheme will serve to make the organisation far more accountable to service users and beneficiaries. Age Concern has always consulted on policy issues but Churchill hopes that the membership scheme will give them a real voice in the running of the organisation. The exact plans for the scheme have not yet been finalised but members will be able to vote on policy issues and be directly represented on the board of the charity. "It will put older people up against the decision makers affecting their lives, such as MPs or mayors,
He is anxious to make sure that the membership scheme itself is accountable since some schemes, he says, exclude some of the more vulnerable people.
"We need to make sure we involve the most disadvantaged old people. We also must have a good representation of black and ethnic minorities,
Churchill believes that the scheme will change the charity considerably, making it far more accountable to its beneficiaries. He feels too much of the discussion about accountability in the sector focuses on donors rather than beneficiaries. "They are what really matters,
The organisation is to embark on an extensive consultation process before any plans are put into action. Consultation events are taking place around the country involving Age Concern England and the Age Concerns around the UK that make up the Age Concern Federation. Churchill hopes that all Age Concerns will join the membership scheme and get involved with the rebrand. "We are a complex organisation and have to consult extensively,
The charity is looking to complete the initial consultation in September and will follow this up with market research. There will then be further consultations later this year and early next.
With such a complex organisation and range of supporters, the rebranding promises to be lengthy. Churchill says: "It takes time but the process is as important as the outcome. If people don't feel ownership then you don't have a chance of succeeding."