Raji Hunjan: More can be achieved when power is shared between charities and communities

An uncomfortable read on holiday made the chief executive reflect on her work at a small charity

Raju Hunjan
Raju Hunjan

Like so many others, I’m sure, I have recently returned from a two-week break somewhere hot and wonderful, in which time I even got to catch up with some much-welcomed reading.

This included Darren McGarvey’s Poverty Safari, a book that doesn’t disappoint as an honest autobiographical insight into poverty, addiction and growing up in a deprived part of Glasgow.

But McGarvey goes much further than simply telling his story, by calling out well-meaning third sector professionals who pursue funding for projects that "do to" the community, rather than work with it.

This aspect of the book makes for a more uncomfortable read, one that certainly made me sit up from my deckchair several times and think about my own practices as chief executive of a small charity.

I am a committed believer in empowering communities and supporting people to achieve the change they desire. This has been a significant theme in my career.

Previously, as a programme director at the Carnegie UK Trust, I supported numerous charities to work more closely with their communities to achieve change through the use of power analysis.

Later, I had the privilege of working with Inquest, which helped bereaved families make considerable progress, both in their own quest for justice and in achieving policy change to prevent further deaths at the hands of the state. Putting power back into the hands of the community is also an emerging theme of the high-profile Civil Society Futures initiative in the first year of its reporting.

At the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust, we are very much thinking about how we work with our clients in a more empowering way. This has included an overhaul of our casework and the strategic decision to take a more holistic approach, helping fewer clients with multiple issues so that we can empower them to deal with future challenges, but also enabling them, should they so desire, to become more active in our campaigning work.

Though we cannot help every person who contacts us, as a charity that campaigns as well as carrying out casework we can work to achieve change in the system. We recently launched a report, Access Denied, which addresses the injustices in the disability benefits system and how it affects people.

The report is powerful because it focuses on the real experiences of our clients and many of the recommendations are based on what they have told us. Building the confidence of a few of our clients to speak out has motivated us to plan other projects that involve clients more directly in our campaigning work.

In his book, Darren McGarvey talks about how those in positions of power wanted him to speak about his experience of poverty, but not necessarily share his opinions. I know from our own experience at Zacchaeus that sometimes the perspectives of our clients do not fit with our own policy thinking. I worry a lot about exposing people and unintentionally reinforcing stereotypes about the people we work with.

Despite this, I still believe that more is achieved when power is shared between charities and communities, when the voices of those most affected are not only heard but when their opinions and ideas are truly listened to.

Raji Hunjan is chief executive of the anti-poverty charity the Zacchaeus 2000 Trust

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