I need to tell you about "John".
John's world is a microcosm of what’s happening to small charities across England and Wales. He runs a charity in a county town – let’s call the charity "LocalSave" – which he set up more than 20 years ago. It works with families and deals with a range of issues, including addiction and domestic abuse. He worked as a volunteer for three years, before receiving his first grants from the Tudor Trust and the Lloyds Bank Foundation, which got the charity going.
It now has nine staff and about 35 volunteers, including trainee counsellors, from a local university. It supports about 300 parents whose drug, alcohol and associated problems put them at risk of losing their children into care. He’s determined the service should be one-stop and holistic. So, alongside practical support and counselling, it provides a range of services, including acupuncture. It is increasingly targeting dads and has initiated work with the perpetrators of domestic violence in response to the growing number of women who’ve faced abuse from partners.
Over recent years, John tells me, he’s seen an increase in demand and an increase in complexity, which he puts down to austerity. In his words the "just about managing are coming to us now". The charity is finding it hard to stem the tide of referrals from social services, from which it receives no income.
The local university has conservatively calculated that keeping a child in care costs £119,000 a year. This ignores the post-care costs, as evidenced by care leavers, who are massively over-represented in our prisons and sex work. If John was paid the equivalent of the care costs for just three children, he’d cover his annual running costs.
When John was starting out, his first grants led to grants and contracts from statutory services. About eight years ago this was all subsumed in a county-wide contract that went to a large national charity. He refused to subcontract because he didn’t like the larger charity's model. This proved to be a wise choice, because the larger charity did not deliver on the contact and was replaced by another large charity that undercut its competitors to win the bid.
This time, John did subcontract. Three years in, the health agency squeezed the contract and the large national charity found itself facing a cut of about 16 per cent, part of which it passed on in an unnegotiated 40 per cent cut to LocalSave’s subcontract, reducing the latter's overall income by a fifth. It nearly broke the organisation.
In spite of this, John remains relentlessly positive and upbeat about what he does, the people he works with and the women and men he reaches. He talks warmly of the young woman we met volunteering in the "Caff", a young mum with a full-time job in a pub and "no more contact with social services" after coming to LocalSave with a drug habit fed by money from sex work. "She alone makes it all worth it," John tells me.
John is also fiercely collaborative and networked. He works with other local charities to think about how they can connect with local businesses and people. And he's in contact with an informal set of peers around the UK, whom he met through a course the Lloyds Bank Foundation funded at the School for Social Entrepreneurs. These include POW, which works with sex workers in Nottingham, and My Sister’s Place, which tackles domestic abuse in Middlesbrough.
John is innovative too. Even after 20-plus years, he’s buzzing with new ideas he wants to try and things the charity has just set up, such as the perpetrator and dads programmes.
As I travel back I’m met from the train by the ubiquitous large cancer charity chuggers. "We raise three times what we cost," they tell me. Perhaps. But I wonder what John could do with that three times if only we knew about him, and thousands like him across the UK. Our unsung but much-loved local charity heroes.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales