Posted 3 years ago
Last week I visited the Magpie Project. I am rubbish at London geography; all I knew was that I was going to Forest Gate – I had no idea where that really was. As I got close to the Project, I could see Stratford’s Westfield shopping centre in the distance. A place some might describe as “retail heaven” but for others, like many of the families I was about to meet, it is an unaffordable reality.
Forest Gate, and its neighbouring town of Stratford, are melting pots – a mix of rich and poor, and a wealth of different cultures, languages and backgrounds. I later learned that there are over 2,000 under-fives homeless in the borough. Upon arrival, the charity’s founder, Jane, invited me in. She sat me in a room filled with nappies, teabags and friendly volunteers. It was clear that this was a vibrant and busy small charity. But it was a far cry from the glitz and glam twenty minutes up the road.
We got straight to business; Jane explained to me that she had never planned to start a charity. She was made redundant from her day job in January 2017 and decided to spend a few months getting to know her local community. She was interested in understanding how local service providers could better engage families with the Children’s Centre that she sits on the Board of. Her intention was simply to do a bit of research. She thought she may be able to develop a plan that she could give to the Local Authority Services to engage the families that they described as, “hard to reach” and/or “disengaged”.
Like most parts of London, Forest Gate has a lack of social housing. Jane pointed to a row of buildings across the road. They looked cold and unwelcoming but apparently they were temporary homes for families that the Local Authority was unable to permanently rehome. Through her research Jane had learned that many of the families in that situation were surviving on £32 a week. If the Chancellor of the Exchequer ever wants to know how to manage on a tight budget, I now know several women living in Forest Gate that have the skills and experience to help. You will find them at the Magpie Project.
The Magpie Project immediately made me feel safe, relaxed and welcome. They have helped 227 families since they set up in June 2017. The mothers I met there were intelligent, capable and far more resilient than I could ever dream of being. Yet, for one reason or another, they didn’t trust, or weren’t able to access, the services that should have been there for them before the Magpie Project was created.
Later that morning I met a mum who was in just that situation. Her gorgeous little baby was just eight days old. I will call the mother Faith to keep her real identity anonymous. Faith was worried about the conditions her child is being exposed to – her entire family lives in one room. One room to sleep in, wash in, cook in…survive in. Her husband’s shoes smell. Faith was worried that the stench of his old sweat was consuming the only air that her baby can breathe at night. The home is not theirs, it is temporary and she does not know when she will be moved on. She doesn’t want to stay but also craves stability and security for her family.
Jane has learned that this sort of family is not hard to reach – they are on her doorstep. She gave the analogy of her husband, sitting on the sofa, telling her he couldn’t reach the remote control because it was three centimetres away from his hand. Sometimes people just need to move out of their comfort zone. That’s why Jane set up a charity. Despite her attempts (and believe me there were many), no one was moving. Without movement, these families would have been abandoned by society.
There are several well-established big charities that work in the same area as the Magpie Project. Some of them have now partnered with the Magpie Project, and bring their services to the centre that the Project operates from. They found these families hard to reach before the Project existed. Some charities are still finding it hard – Jane told me that a few organisations have won large contracts to work with the families in the area like the ones who visit the Magpie Project. These charities don’t have the local connections, and haven’t gained the trust of the community like the Magpie Project has.
Big charities can do amazing things. I worked for, and donated to Cancer Research UK for many years. I believe that they are bringing forward the day when cancer will no longer be a terminal disease. Big charities also afford to employ talented bid writers. They employ fundraisers whose targets are almost entirely financial. As a result, I have seen larger organisations choose to compete against smaller charities for funding. They win because they have professional fundraisers but the “beneficiaries” often lose because they don’t know the big charity that is moving into the area and, more importantly, the big charity doesn’t know them.
Jane told me she is regularly having to turn away funding from these larger organisations. She hates turning away funding but the services that the money is offered for simply aren’t suitable for the families in Forest Gate. The Magpie Project always puts families’ needs first. It doesn’t accept services from others simply because it would be financially beneficial. As a result, the money goes elsewhere and the Magpie Project battles on - surviving on a few grants and a lot of donations of nappies, food and knitted hats from the local community. I have heard similar stories across the country.
After two-hours of being blown away by the impressiveness of the mothers visiting the Magpie Project I walked out of the door carrying a leaflet. I guess I wanted to hold onto as much of the experience as possible. Two days later I read an article suggesting it doesn’t matter that 80% of all income to the charity sector goes to the top 1% of largest charities. I’m afraid I have to disagree. Small charities offer something distinctive – this was evidenced in a recent piece of research commissioned by the Lloyds Bank Foundation. If the pot of money that the charity sector is competing for isn’t going to change substantially then we need more of it to go to the distinctive services offered by those like the Magpie Project.
This article was originally published on LinkedIn.