News analysis: Lean structure and a new direction

Anita Pati

After two years' planning, Samaritans has overhauled its governance and changed its agenda.

Samaritans has listened for 53 years. Now it's ready to talk. The charity last week announced it was entering a 'renaissance', having stripped down its governance structure from 16,000 decision-makers to just 200.

Two years of formal planning culminated in an Extraordinary General Meeting (EGM) at the end of January. More than half of its 15,500 volunteers voted to set up a new governing body of 15 trustees, pared down from the previous 225. The 15,500 volunteers have relinquished their voting rights as members and handed these to the new advisory Council of Samaritans, comprising 218 people.

The streamlining, though dramatic, is simply a mechanism to guide the charity in a new direction. Samaritans will now focus on 'emotional health promotion' and preventive work by encouraging people to chat about their problems, no matter how trivial. Some 80 per cent of the charity's calls are about issues other than suicide, ranging from drug dependency to work pressures.

Quick reactions

"This change in governance will allow us to react more quickly and effectively to the challenges that our direction presents us with," says David King, chief executive of Samaritans. He says the sprawling trustee board of 200-odd members had made rapid decisions a logistical nightmare.

King, who says he had a "relatively small" part to play in the process, is proud of the fact that change was driven mainly by the volunteers.

The idea had been considered several times in the charity's history, and the ball was set in motion before he was appointed two years ago.

Steve Evans, newly elected chair of the charity, is similarly gratified that the process was democratic. "One reason we were so pleased to have such a big endorsement through the EGM was that we had seen it as important for these proposals to have a wide mandate," he says.

Samaritans' biggest challenge now is to change public perceptions of its work. "We are well known for our traditional image, which is reactive - suicide, telephone," says King. "But this is just the tip of the iceberg."

King says that there is one suicide every 88 minutes in the UK, but the underside of the iceberg is the £30bn cost to the economy from stress-related absence.

"A lot of what we do in Samaritans has been perceived to be hidden," says Evans. He hopes the new trustee board, one-third of whose members will be from outside the organisation, will inject a vital skills mix into the charity, resulting in speedier decisions and a sharper focus.

"We need to be more outward-looking and proactive, and to work more with other agencies," he adds.

Samaritans has already been working quietly with the NHS and the prison service for years. But the charity is now ready to be vocal about the four current pilot projects through which it will reach into the community rather than wait at the end of a phone.

The schools pilot, launching in October across England and Wales, will use packs and workshops to improve the emotional health of young people in years 10 and 11, aged 14-15. These resources will be used by teachers to supplement their existing lesson plans and could also be delivered by Samaritans volunteers.

"If you can talk to young people within schools, you're making sure they can equip themselves to deal with issues and not just pick them up when it becomes extreme," says King.

Another project, WorkLife, is in its final pilot stages. Samaritans will deliver emotional health training to organisations that will use its specialist communication skills to help them spot and reduce stress, depression and other emotional health issues in the workplace. The University of Nottingham will evaluate the project independently before Samaritans markets it commercially to organisations later this year.

New event

The charity's first '24/7 day' will be on 24 July this year. It's a new annual fundraising event in which all its branches, 17,000 volunteers and supporters, along with partner organisations, will publicise Samaritans as the country's only 24/7, 365-days-a-year volunteer helpline charity.

It is also piloting a texting service to encourage young people to seek emotional support using text dialogue, although this project is at a very early stage. Results from an initial feasibility study show that eight out of 10 people under the age of 25 are more likely to send someone a message than to pick up the phone.

Evans says the need for good emotional health has never been greater.

"Emotional health is something that everyone in society should aspire to, and we can provide this service," he says.

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