Funders' friend

Jeremy Swain, chief executive of Thames Reach, takes issue with Charity Commission's warning about risks to independence.

Swain: 'Charities must respond to stakeholders' (Credit: Newscast)
Swain: 'Charities must respond to stakeholders' (Credit: Newscast)

Jeremy Swain has some real scars to show for his time working in the homelessness sector. Early in his career, the chief executive of the London-based homelessness charity Thames Reach was assaulted by a man in the hostel in King's Cross, central London, where he worked.

A heroin addict who couldn't find a hostel resident he wanted to beat up took out his frustration on Swain's face. Four stitches, a broken nose and a few less teeth later, Swain had learned a tough lesson about life on the front line.

2001 Chief executive, Thames Reach
1988 Housing services manager, Thames Reach
1984 Street outreach worker, Thames Reach
1981 Hostel worker, Intake Hostel, King's Cross, London
1980 Full-time volunteer, Cyrenians

But that incident doesn't appear to have dulled Swain's appetite for speaking his mind. He is forthright in his criticism of the speech by Charity Commission chair Dame Suzi Leather last month, in which she warned that charities risked losing their independence from their funders (Third Sector, 21 February).

"It is quite dangerous if organisations don't respond to stakeholders," says Swain, whose charity receives 71 per cent of its £18m income from statutory sources. "The danger of what she is saying is that it suggests you have all the answers and no one can challenge that. But funders have some very good ideas. The sector often starts with the assumption, which we know in our hearts is wrong, that we always know what is best for our beneficiaries."

Bitter experience has taught Swain the perils of organisations not listening to outside advice: he points to the example of two charities that Thames Reach has taken over. "The governing boards had cut themselves off from outside criticism," he says. "They put themselves in a bunker and the organisations began to spiral down.

"Of course the board should take the final decision. But it has to make sure the organisation is financially viable, and it has to do that with funders."

Leather's warning, a reaction to a commission survey of 3,800 charities, was billed as a "wake-up call" to the sector, but Swain fears it could have the opposite effect on some charities.

"Only 26 per cent feel free from pressure from funders," he says. "Far from picking out that 26 per cent as angels, I think they need to shape up.

"Suggesting they need to maintain their independence is music to their ears. That is so far away from the reality of where we are now. Rather than being a wake-up call, it is a call to roll over and have another lie-in."

Swain is also unhappy with the methodology used by the commission for the survey. "It is one of the most flawed reports I have seen for a long time," he says.

The conclusions drawn from the survey are unsound, he claims. One - about board members' involvement in operational decisions - particularly concerns him.

He says: "Do boards want to get involved in areas of activity that are quite small? No. From this, the commission extrapolated that it's the big organisations that are at most risk of mission drift and losing their independence. That is a completely biased way of looking at the question."

Swain says charities should focus on getting funding on a mainstream footing, and points to the success of homelessness charities in securing funding to tackle rough sleeping.

"We got government to accept that these were public services in need of funding," he says. And that, he insists, should be celebrated.

Swain is philosophical about how to manage relationships with funders.

"Let's ask funders some simple questions," he says. "What do you like about what we are doing? What can we do differently? We do not have to use that, but we think the people that fund us have a pretty good idea of how to meet the needs of those people we are supporting."

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