My role has never been about endless meetings in darkened rooms – even if it’s a room of my own. And it has been a delight to return to meeting small charities in situ. I recently spent a fascinating morning in the new offices of Bringing Hope UK with a small group of faith-based, and mainly Black-led, Birmingham charities working on a range of issues. They are based in Handsworth – the location of successive riots arising from racial and police related tensions.
Bringing Hope is an interesting charity. Founded 17 years ago by two local community leaders and local pastors, it primarily works with people with experience of the criminal justice system and a history of gangs and violence.
The organisation describes those it works with as “people in need of a second chance”, many of whom have not been supported by other organisations. Its front line staff have similar experiences and backgrounds as the people they support.
Robin, one of the founders, contrasted the punitive approach of statutory services with their own. He recalled asking a very senior police officer at a platform discussion: “Do you care about those you imprison?” It was made clear that their only focus is protecting the public and justice.
“Caring enough” is central to all the best charities we support. That may seem a trite statement – but they are run by people who care deeply about the people and the communities they serve.
As Robin said, “you have to drive through the system with a bit of heart” to make a connection and differentiate yourselves from law enforcement services that appear not to care about the individuals they arrest.
But for this largely Black-led group of charities, caring is not just personal but central to the Christian ethos of their work.
Our work during Covid-19 to correct the unintended bias in our own portfolio and fund more Black-led organisations leaves me challenging my own bias about faith-based organisations, which was the main subject of our discussion.
Black and Asian communities often have a deep and active connection with their faith, which undoubtedly provides a point of connection to people they seek to reach, as is very evident at Bringing Hope.
But it’s not always a good thing. We spoke about the problems sometimes faced by trustee boards who insist that all staff are Christians as the first requirement of working at the charity over skills and empathy.
As a Foundation we have historically not funded faith-based organisations that proselytise, or where the evidence of faith becomes a barrier to access to those who don’t share it. That can be especially problematic when the charity is located in a mosque, church or temple.
But on some issues in particular, faith is often central to why the charity does what it does and to those who work in it. Refugee and sex worker charities, for example, are often started as an expression of faith: but the same is true of homeless charities like the Emmaus group, which we are often keen to fund because we recognise the effectiveness of their work.
Our work over the past two years with Black and Asian-led organisations has left me questioning my own biases as someone for whom faith is peripheral. There is no question that to reach these communities we must recognise that faith is not just central to their work, but one of the reasons people are willing to come through their doors, knowing they will meet someone who cares and won’t judge them.
In our new strategy, which we will launch next year, we will be trying to get this right – recognising that for many Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities the first point of seeking support will be an organisation run by people like them.
Unless we recognise this, we will not address the bias in our work – especially if we automatically think: “Specialist charity first.”
Whether a charity is a community or specialist organisation, the characteristic that unites them is their ability to establish trust and show they care enough not to judge – in a society where that is often, sadly, the first instinct of so many of us.
Paul Streets is chief executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation