Interview: Elaine Kerr, Chai Cancer Care

The Jewish cancer charity tells Tristan Donovan about their decision to expand in a downturn

It took 18 months of furious fundraising for Chai Cancer Care to raise the £1m it needed to build an extension to its headquarters in Hendon, north-west London.

The money was urgently needed, says Elaine Kerr, chief executive of the Jewish cancer charity. "We had run out of space for our services," she says. "Demand has been increasing by 50 per cent a year for the past two years. To maintain the quality and range of our services, we had to expand."

Building an extension to the centre rather than seeking to buy a larger property was, says Kerr, the logical solution: "It's absolutely perfect for our needs. It's in the ideal position and it's got plenty of parking. The cost of moving and buying a new centre would be prohibitive."

The charity wanted the extension to create additional rooms for its therapy sessions and workshops, a gym for its physiotherapy and exercise groups, and a relaxation area for beneficiaries. By late 2008, the planning application was in and all looked well.

Then the economy nosedived. The charity found itself questioning whether spending money on the extension would be a wise move. "We were still going through the planning process when we saw that the economic climate was deteriorating, so I went back to the trustees to ask if they still wanted to go ahead," says Kerr. "They decided that we were there to provide services and took the brave decision to go ahead."

Having decided to take the plunge, the charity faced the challenge of ensuring it could pay for the extra services, which are due to open later this year. "We get no statutory funding, but although there has been a slight downturn in donations, we're pretty confident we can fund the services," says Kerr.

Running a tight ship is vital to this. The charity employs 45 people and only four do not work face-to-face with its 1,100 clients, so there is no room for waste. "We have to make sure our processes and systems are as foolproof as possible," Kerr says.

One way the charity seeks to do this is by keeping accurate records of its work with each client so the information its workers or 90-odd volunteers need is readily available. "Whether your organisation is large or small, communication is key," she says.

Kerr still works face-to-face with clients, despite being chief executive. "It's a daily reminder about why we do what we do," she says. "And no matter how big the organisation got, I wouldn't want to stop doing it."

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