Peter Stanford: Lessons from the demise of the Children's Food Trust

Observe the golden rule: never rely on the government as a funder

Peter Stanford
Peter Stanford

The closure of the Children’s Food Trust is one for all trustees to chew over. Unless it is merging with others to form a bigger, more effective unit, the loss of any charity is to be lamented, and each ending inevitably has its particular circumstances. But there are surely wider lessons to learn here from the demise of such a high-profile organisation.

When established in 2005 as the School Dinners Campaign, it seemed to have it all: a popular and passionate leader in the form of Jamie Oliver; back-up in the celebrity stakes in the shape of Prue Leith, today potentially on the cusp of becoming a national treasure as Channel 4’s replacement for Mary Berry in the new-look Great British Bake Off; a clear and urgent mandate to encourage our children to eat more healthily and end the blight of obesity that will cost the whole of society dear as chubby toddlers grow up; and, best of all, government support, moral and financial.

So how has it ended up in the mire of "financial difficulties"? Well, there is the small matter of living within your means, and its accounts show it spent more than it raised in 2016, at a time when its income was falling by roughly 20 per cent.

But the golden rule of charity finance is never to rely on the government as a funder. In its announcement of closure, the trust cited "the political and economic climate" as part of the problem. In other words, ministers moved on to new enthusiasms to replace the initial attraction they felt for the charity.

It started life as a non-departmental body, under the auspices of the Department for Education, before moving in 2011 to stand on its own feet. But the government giveth and the government taketh away. Many are the charities that have mistakenly believed they have reached fundraising heaven when their initial work results in the government deciding to chip in.

Yes, it requires endless form-filling and a never-ending procession of junior ministers, smiling cheesily as they visit the facilities. But isn’t that a small price to pay for the opportunity to scale up, help more people, take the kernel of a good idea and roll it out over a much wider territory?

Well, too often the answer is "no". You take on more staff and better premises, and you begin to neglect other funders because you are so busy keeping your main paymaster happy. And then the rug is pulled from under your feet because of a change of direction at the ministry, or because the overall government budget has to be cut or raided to pay for another shiny new ministerial favourite that they believe will woo the voters. "How do we make an impact before the next election?" is the number one question that dominates every minister’s waking minutes.

It is a very hard, almost counter-intuitive, call for trustees to say no to government funding. I once sat on a board where the official carrot was dangled tantalisingly in front of our faces, if only we would sign up to what was the predominant political mantra at the time: payment by results. We were sorely tempted, but finally decided that to take the money would so distort our priorities and our way of working that it would destroy the heart of what we were doing so successfully.

With hindsight, I have no doubt whatsoever that, had we taken the cash, we too would have shut up shop long ago. Payment by results is as much old news now as Jamie Oliver at the school gates in a stew.

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

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