Interview: Denise Marshall

The outspoken chief executive of Eaves says that funding cuts are unacceptable for charities that support vulnerable women

Denise Marshall
Denise Marshall

Denise Marshall is good at many things, but keeping quiet isn't one of them. In the 12 years since becoming chief executive of Eaves, a London-based charity that provides support to vulnerable women who have experienced violence, she has earned a reputation for her outspoken views on women's issues.

A year ago Marshall hit the headlines when she gave back the OBE she received in 2007, saying it would be "dishonourable" to keep it, given the cuts made to services for vulnerable women. [Scroll down to watch Marshall explain her decision to return the OBE]

And she made the pages of Third Sector last month by telling an event for charity leaders: "Men have strange views of women's organisations. That's OK, except when you're trying to get funding. Men won't give you money."

Marshall is unapologetic. "I'm paid to do a job and I have to do it to the best of my ability," she says. "That means being honest, and sometimes that's painful - I'd rather not be the person at the meeting who is mouthing off. But I'm paid to represent my service users and my client group."

She says her public comments have created a perception of her as being "miserable and sour", but insists that is not the case. "I'm a shouter," she says. "I'm also an optimist."

Funding struggles

Many of her recent protests stem from the cuts made to central and local authority government funding. Since 2010, Eaves' annual income has fallen sharply, from about £6.7m in March 2011 to an estimated £2m now. "In 2010, it was like you had to tighten your belt - but if you worked in a women's organisation, your belt was already so tight that it strangled you half the time," she says. "There never has been any fat and there never has been room for cutting."

Eaves will have to lose 14 staff, potentially closing its drop-in and advice centre for women who have experienced violence, and scaling back other aspects of its work. Marshall says this is unacceptable.

"If you are a woman who has experienced some form of violence, I believe you have the right to the very best service and the community owes you an opportunity to recover and make right what has happened," she says.

Her willingness to speak out has made her persona non grata in some circles. Last year, she received an email inviting her to 10 Downing Street for an event to mark International Women's Day. Minutes later, the invitation was rescinded, but she says she wouldn't have attended anyway. "I think they sent me the invitation and quickly realised the mistake," she says. "How can I say all the things I say and then attend Number 10?"

But she insists her motive for speaking out is not opposition to the Tory-led government - she says she was equally critical of some Labour initiatives when it was in power.

"Take the Supporting People funding programme, for example," she says. "When it came out, I described it as being like women's designer underwear: designed for men, by men, and really uncomfortable if you were a woman."

Like many charities under the financial cosh, Eaves is changing its services. Instead of delivering a broad range, it will now focus its efforts on four priorities: trafficking in the UK and abroad; putting women who have been raped and sexually assaulted in contact with volunteers who have had similar experiences; helping women in London to leave prostitution; and a research and development project called Lilith that backs up the charity's work with evidence and 'incubates' project ideas.

Coping with change

Eaves has also developed a broader funding base. In 2012, almost 75 per cent of the charity's income came from central and local government sources, but this has fallen to less than 40 per cent in 2013. The majority of its money now comes from private donations, corporates and grants from trusts. Marshall says it's coping with the change, but adds: "It would have been nice to have had a few more years to cement this way of funding."

As for her own future, she has just published her first book, The Long Shadow, available on Amazon.

The gritty fictional drama is set in a deprived part of Thamesmead, the south London area where she lived for most of her teens. "I love writing - it's my therapy," she says.

She intends to remain with Eaves for the foreseeable future. "I sometimes think that I've made myself unemployable, which is a pretty scary thought," she says.

But she has no regrets about speaking her mind. "I was brought up by Irish immigrants," she says. "I always have my mother's Dublin accent in my ear, telling me that I have to do the right thing."

Watch Marshall explain why she gave back her OBE:

CV

2000: Chief executive, Eaves
1995: Director, Hackney Women's Aid
1993: Manager, Camden Women's Aid
1986: Development worker, Stonewall Housing Association

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