Newsmaker: A force for change - Major General Andrew Cumming CBE, Controller, SSAFA - Forces Help

Emma Maier

As Remembrance Day and the Poppy Appeal come around again, the forces charities are once more finding themselves in the spotlight. The likes of the Royal British Legion and SAAFA - Forces Help have always collaborated, but this year they are closer than ever: the two are actively flirting.

"At present, there is no obvious rush to make any final and binding agreement to merge, but we are actively working with the legion to determine how we can best work together in the best interests of any potential client," says Major General Andrew Cumming, controller at SSAFA.

In the meantime, Cumming has other challenges on his mind. The life of a community volunteer and the precision of a military environment appear, at first glance, to be polar opposites. But managing volunteers is not as far removed from leading soldiers as you might think, according to Cumming. After 37 years in the forces and seven months leading 7,000 volunteers at SSAFA, he should know.

"The armed forces have to persuade an awful lot of people to go in one direction - a direction that is truly dangerous, bloody and awful," says Cumming. "As a commander, one has to be able to take a cause, expand on it and make it attractive. One has to be as persuasive with volunteers as one ever had to be with soldiers."

The SSAFA (Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Families Association) has 7,000 volunteers in 99 branches across the UK. They assess the needs of ex-services people and help put them in touch with organisations, such as benevolent funds, that can help. There is also a network of volunteers supporting serving personnel.

Influencing this vast group is no mean task, especially when you consider SSAFA's history as a volunteer-led organisation.

"I am in the curious position of having no real control over 99 branches, despite being called the controller," says Cumming. "The volunteers are subordinate to my chair, who is also a volunteer. We treat our status as a volunteer organisation very seriously."

He says that keeping the whole ship happy and pointing in the right direction takes "a combination of good manners, as much charm as I can exercise and a vision that people will accept".

Cumming was working for the UN, converting the Kosovo Liberation Army from fighting force to a civil emergency organisation, when he was invited to apply for the job at the association. "The end of my first life, my military life, was approaching," he says. "I was delighted to be asked to tender my abilities to SSAFA - Forces Help. More importantly, I was thrilled to be told I had got the job."

Seven months later, Cumming is still thrilled - it's a word he uses a lot. "What I enjoy most is that it is very much a people business and it is all to do with personalities. It never occurred to me 10 years ago that I'd be doing this, but I'm so thrilled to be here."

Nonetheless, the job is not without its challenges. The environment is changing for all forces charities. The largest cohort of beneficiaries, those who served in the Second World War, are well into their 80s and 90s. Combined with the decline in the number of people entering the services, the overall pool of beneficiaries is dwindling.

Yet the association is less affected than some, as it is a 'cradle-to-grave' organisation. It caters for people who have served in the forces for any length of time, from a single day through to currently serving personnel, to older veterans and service families, rather than just ex-services people. As Cumming puts it: "SSAFA - Forces Help has the Heineken effect: it reaches the parts others do not reach."

Despite the association's contingent of younger beneficiaries, the fact remains that the pool of service and ex-service people is shrinking. It is not surprising, then, that talk of mergers between forces charities has long been reverberating around the sector. But Cumming feels such talk is premature.

"On the one hand it seems very obvious," he says. "Yes, by 2020, there are bound to be fewer people, so it makes sense that there are fewer charities that deal with them. But the reality is that each charity has a very specific charter and set of regulations. There is some overlap, but not so much that it is obvious that they should merge." Working in partnerships is a better route, says Cumming.

In the meantime, he wants to boost the charity's kudos within the forces community. "There is a view that SSAFA is just about those on Zimmer frames," he says. "But there are a lot of young people here. It is a young, vibrant, active, totally dedicated and modern-thinking organisation. We've got to get that message across."

Cumming hopes this approach will also strengthen long-term volunteer recruitment. "I want to nurture people and give them a warm feeling about SSAFA - Forces Help so that they will want to give something back in 20 or 30 years' time."

In the shorter term, the next year is going to be a busy one for SSAFA.

Since starting in April, Cumming has set up a successful corporate Friends of SSAFA scheme for businesses working in the defence industry, which he is looking to expand. The charity is keen to mark the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar and the 60 years since the end of the Second World War. It has also been chosen as one of the two Lord Mayor's charities for 2005, and will be celebrating its own 120-year anniversary in February.

Yet Cumming is looking even further ahead. "I very much hope that I'll still be here in five years' time as controller of a unique organisation that looks after the interests of anyone who ever has been a member of the armed forces."

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