I had huge fun, even if the number of us volunteering meant I did remarkably little table clearing or plate scraping. The volunteers range from young to old, and from people who have had considerable problems to those who just have a bit of spare time on their hands.
The clients are a glorious mixture, from people who are really isolated to local bank managers or judges from the court across the road. It is truly a community cafe; people who are lonely and isolated find company and genuine friendship there, and those who want a decent meal for relatively little money can also come and get talking to people who have very different lives from their own. It is full of characters - I have not been teased and made to laugh so much in months. Some similar ventures in the past have been a bit stuffy, or perhaps a bit worthy - I say this advisedly, as a rabbi. But as soon as you walk in, you can sense this project's fantastic atmosphere.
The Open House Cafe was started as a totally voluntary project by the church, with people cooking in their own homes and bringing the food in. Demand was so great that it had to bring in some professional involvement; Denise Colliver, the project manager, is both professional in how she manages the organisation and totally committed to the creation of community in an area of London where isolation is not uncommon.
This shows that a project does not need to be new in concept, particularly inventive or even particularly smart or stylish to work. The concept of eating together as a community is as old as the hills. The cafe serves excellent food and engages volunteers in a way they had not expected. It provides support to people with severe mental illness and other issues. But it is nothing new.
However, our funding system favours new projects over old, and new ideas over tried and tested ones. Most projects are told to be self-sustaining after three years at most. A cafe such as Open House will never be financially self-sustaining. It would have to charge so much for its meals that those it wanted to attract would never come through its doors. The point is to have food available cheaply and to take part in a local community activity. You cannot charge commercial prices for this. But its success, in terms of people going back to work, getting their lives back and just feeling loved or welcomed, is obvious.
Yet they will always need funding. It really is time for government, funders and foundations to think again about how organisations are supported. They need to be in it for the long haul and to recognise that you do not have to have a bright, new idea to do essential work. It is time we recognised that many organisations will need funding over decades, that putting them through hoops to prove the novelty of what they are doing is ridiculous, and that one-year funding, or even three-year funding, is absurd.
And while we're on the subject ...
- Julia Neuberger joined Ed Miliband, minister for the third sector, to volunteer at the Open House Cafe in Brentford last week. The duo helped serve food to customers and to clear tables. The cafe also provides regular volunteering opportunities for people with mental health or employment problems.
- The cafe is part of the parish of Brentford's mission for local people. As well as serving food, the project offers prayer ministry, discussion of the Bible and pastoral support. The cafe's motto is Food for the Body, Food for the Soul and it aims to "recognise spiritual and physical hunger".
- Open House began 15 years ago as a community centre serving tea and cakes to people who wanted somewhere to feel welcomed and accepted. It now opens five days a week between 11am and 2pm. Twenty-five volunteers help to run the cafe, but it relies on grant funding for its survival.
- In his pre-Budget speech last December, Chancellor Gordon Brown said three-year funding would be the norm for third sector organisations after this year's Comprehensive Spending Review, set to take place in the autumn. "We propose more stability in funding for third sector success, particularly for small, local organisations," he said.
- Julia Neuberger, a Liberal Democrat peer and chair of the Commission for the Future of Volunteering.