Peter Stanford: Difficult subjects can be fertile ground for charitable work

Causes that are unpopular with the public can be a tough sell, but offer great opportunities for making a real difference

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

It has long been a given that there exists a hierarchy of causes for those who commit their money and time to charities. Children, cancer and education, for example, are all up there in popular perceptions as being among the most deserving and rewarding. And down at the bottom tend to come "harder" areas, such as mental illness and prison reform.

I’ve been involved with the latter for some years now. I say that not to trumpet any kind of virtue or refusal to follow the pack, but instead to say that I know what a hard sell "tough causes" can be. Even when you can convince would-be donors or would-be well-qualified trustees that prison reform is just as worthy as anything else as a recipient of their money, time and expertise, there are often caveats. "Just as long as you don’t have anything to do with sex offenders," one such cautioned me recently.

So I want to celebrate the Safer Living Foundation winning Charity of the Year in this year’s Third Sector Awards as a sign of a wider change of attitudes that will ultimately be to all our advantages. If we want a safer society for all, we have to find a better way of supporting those who have been convicted of sex offences once they have served their sentences in prison. Why? Because locking people away forever – as some would punitively suggest we do with sex offenders – is no solution, either practically in cost and prison places or ethically for a still just about civilised society. And simply releasing them, as we often do now, into a community that is unremittingly hostile, that treats them as monsters and tolerates vigilantes, leads to precisely what we don’t want to happen: more violence and more reoffending.

For a couple of years recently, I was a trustee of another charity in this field, Circles UK, and know what tough work this can be, when even your successful strategies and the positive outcome statistics they achieve are treated by funders – notably the Ministry of Justice – as something to keep under wraps in case they challenge deeply embedded public prejudices. It is arguably time that we, as a society, started doing a little less demonising and a little more thinking when it comes to sex offenders.

This award to the Safer Living Foundation will encourage that process. It is a positive sign that attitudes are starting to shift and is a good time, therefore, to celebrate the dedication that is bringing this about, by those who work at such organisations, those who volunteer at them, those who give financial support and those who seek their support in confronting their offending behaviour. And, I should add, their trustees.

There are many easier offers to take, if you have the inclination to commit some of your time and expertise to being a trustee, than a charity that rehabilitates sex offenders. You will on occasion be brought up short by the stories you hear in the chief executive’s report at board meetings. Yes, there are plenty of positive stories, too, of what can be achieved with well-thought-through, targeted and resourced interventions, but you are going into a place where many would prefer not to tread.

And it makes that standard trustee role of encouraging those you know and meet to find out more about "your" charity a little daunting. Thousands of trustees do a brilliant job in connecting charities with potential mentors, donors and volunteers of their acquaintance. It can, though, require something extra to start talking about being a trustee of a sex offender rehabilitation charity at social gatherings, part of the wider instinctive distaste the subject prompts.

But the flip side is that, once you’ve taken the plunge and started the conversation, shared the details of what can be done successfully to change lives and to better protect society, then you can – admittedly in a minority of cases – cause your listeners to think again. It is how we change things in our world. So, although being a trustee at a charity working with those low on the usual list of priorities might involve an extra challenge, it can also, potentially and in my own experience, bring a different kind of satisfaction.

Peter Stanford is a writer and broadcaster, and was a charity chair for more than 20 years

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