Interview: Fighting evil

Joseph Rowntree Foundation director Julia Unwin talks about the foundation's inquiry into social evils, the results of which are due out in April.

Julia Unwin
Julia Unwin

Most charity chief executives dedicate themselves to doing good in the world. But Julia Unwin is more concerned, at present, with its metaphysical opposite.

Unwin heads the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, which has launched an inquiry into the nature of evil in the 21st century. Not evil in a theological sense, but the social evils blighting contemporary society.

"In 1904, when Joseph Rowntree set up the foundation, he charged us with finding out the reason for social evils," she says. "The motivation for this research is partly to reflect on our origins, but also to think about social problems with more urgency and more depth. It's easy to focus on the manifestations of problems, such as drug-taking or violence. We are interested in what sits behind them."

The foundation did not limit its investigation to policy wonks and academics. It set up a website - socialevils.org.uk - that has had more than 3,500 responses. Focus groups were held, not with the usual suspects, but with unemployed people, those with learning disabilities and older people.

A report summarising the findings will be published in April, but Unwin says discernible themes are apparent. "A very deep unease is emerging about how, in a very affluent society, people still feel that communities don't work," she says. "They don't feel that they stick together."

When the research is ready, the foundation will do what it has always done - publish and take the results to policy-makers, be they government ministers, civil servants, local authority leaders or fellow voluntary organisations. The foundation will kick-start the discussion, demonstrate the problem and illustrate how changes might work, but it will not campaign for specific policy reforms.

It's an approach that has acquired an impressive track record. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation pioneered the concept of lifetime homes - the theory that houses are built that adapt as a person ages and loses mobility. It helped change planning policy so that new social housing always combines houses for sale and rent. And its work on child poverty paved the way for the Government's commitment to halving the number of children living in poverty by 2010.

But does the evidence-based road to changing policy still work? Can you change the Government's mind simply by illuminating social realities?

"Government isn't the only target for influence," says Unwin. "Policy is made by lots of different people and you have to influence voluntary organisations and local authorities. I don't think evidence alone changes people's minds. I think evidence that is practice-based and research-based is important. And evidence of what works and doesn't work is critical.

"But even if it doesn't change policy, I still think it's important for the foundation to provide the evidence, because that holds a mirror up to policy-makers and says 'whatever you are aiming to do, this is what is really happening'."

When it comes to presenting evidence that is rooted in on-the-ground experience, the foundation has a unique advantage - it consists not only of a research arm, but also a housing trust that owns 2,500 homes. "One of the great things about the job is that it has real practical implementation as well as policy perspective," says Unwin. "It keeps your feet firmly on the ground. This afternoon I'm chairing a meeting of residents and staff of the housing trust to talk about their view of the nature of social evil. Not many foundations would be able to do that."

Unwin CV

2007: Director, Joseph Rowntree Foundation
2003: Deputy chair, Food Standards Agency
1998: Charity commissioner
1993: Freelance voluntary sector consultant
1986: Director, Homeless Network
1982: Head of voluntary sector liaison team, Greater London Council

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