Interview: Chair Elizabeth Pollard on dealing with the rapid growth of the Trussell Trust

The charity that started with a single food bank in Salisbury 20 years ago now has an income of almost £6.8m and 420 food banks

Liz Pollard
Liz Pollard

The rise in recent years of the Trussell Trust, the UK’s largest provider of food banks, is a clear indicator of the economic environment many people are dealing with in modern-day Britain.

The charity, which started with a single food bank in the Wiltshire city of Salisbury in 1997, has grown enormously this decade, from an income of £1.2m in 2011/12 to almost £6.8m and 420 food banks four years later. Its headquarters remain in Salisbury, but it is beginning to embrace its new national profile.

Elizabeth Pollard is chair of the charity, having taken over from Chris Mould last year. She says the trust’s rapid growth has led to a period of reflection that created an opportunity to make its governance arrangements and structures more in keeping with a major national charity than a local concern.

"We’ve had the most enormous growth over the past five years, and I think the past 18 months have been a period of consolidation and reorganising ourselves," she says. "We’re now leaner and fitter, and ready to move forward to the challenges ahead.

"It’s like the top-100 companies: they have huge spurts of growth but then they often have periods of consolidation and reorganise themselves so they’re ready for the next period of growth. I think that’s exactly where the trust has got to."

The charity’s rapid growth has led to a surge of interest from the national media and politicians, especially in the context of the political debate about austerity and the management of the UK economy.

Pollard says the charity has had to adapt quickly to its raised profile, and it has used its prominence and ability to collect data from its food banks to ensure it has a voice at government level.

"I think it has been quite a learning process over the past two or three years," she says. "We’re in a unique position because we have food banks all over the country: the data we collect is really useful to government if it wants to see how things are working and where the areas of crisis are. So we have built some really good relationships with the government and I think it looks really positive going forward.

"We are totally apolitical, so we will work with any government that is in power. We are there to serve our clients."

The relationship between the charity and government has not always been cordial. In 2013, Iain Duncan Smith, at the time the work and pensions secretary, accused the trust of "scaremongering" and refused to meet it to discuss claims that reforms to the benefits system had caused more people to attend food banks.

Pollard says the difficulties of 2013 are now well behind the charity and the trust has been able to forge good relationships with Duncan Smith’s successors at the DWP.

"Although the Trussell Trust is a non-political organisation, we have a duty to highlight the instances and causes of hunger with policy-makers across the UK," she says. "This has in the past led to some challenging conversations with governments of all parties.

"However, everybody in public life wants to see food poverty eradicated and we have developed a productive relationship with the Department for Work and Pensions under both Damian Green and David Gauke.

"We hope that, in time, this dialogue will lead to some tangible improvements to the lives of the people we see referred to our food banks."

In addition to Pollard’s appointment last year, there has been another significant change at the top of the organisation, with David McAuley, the charity’s chief executive for the past nine years, this month joining the young and vulnerable persons charity Openhouse as chief executive.

Pollard says she understands why McAuley might want a new challenge after his role in expanding the Trussell Trust, and hopes to have a new chief executive in place in the next three or four months.

The charity is also embarking on a wide-ranging board review, designed to ensure that its governance structures are the right ones for a charity of its growing size.

Pollard says she expects this will include appointing new trustees from across the country, rather than the primarily Salisbury-based trustees of years gone by. She is considering holding board meetings in London to help make them more accessible.

As a disabled female chair, Pollard says she sees diversity of thought and experience as the most important factor in new trustees, and that they buy into the charity’s values and activities.

Her background in investment means she has a strong knowledge of finance, something that many sector experts have highlighted as a weakness in many charities. But finding the right trustees to better reflect the charity’s new-found national profile will be crucial.

In terms of a successor to McAuley, the charity is seeking someone who can build on the foundations he laid, says Pollard, and put their own stamp on a charity that is likely to expand further in the coming years.

"We are looking for a visionary person who is ready to take the trust to the next level because there are lots of exciting challenges ahead," she says. "I don’t think food poverty is going to be stopping in the short term, so I think there is plenty of work out there to do in future."

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