Interview: A place of safety

Charity Times Awards winning charity Refuge has come a long way since Sandra Horley CBE joined as chief executive 34 years ago, but the work is not getting any easier.

Some of society’s most isolated and frightened women and children come to Refuge for help escaping a life of abuse and violence, and the breadth of the charity’s work has expanded since it opened its doors 45 years ago.

Refuge is not immune to the austerity measures that have affected so many UK charities. Cuts to local authority budgets have hit the charity, and women’s refuge services generally.

The charity is growing despite government tightening the purse strings, indeed, Horley says she is optimistic.

“Like most charities, austerity has had an effect on us. Income from government grants is harder to come by, but we have been diversifying our income streams and working hard to engage more individual supporters. We will be stepping up fundraising activity. Public and corporate support is more important than ever. But I’m not downhearted.”


The charity opened the first women’s refuge in 1971, and is now the country’s largest specialist provider of services for women escaping gender based violence.

Horley arrived in the UK from Canada in 1977 to study at Oxford and Birmingham Universities, as part of her BA at McGill University in Montreal. Living in rural Shropshire, Horley happened upon a job at a women’s refuge that became the first step in a path toward her current role.

“I was the director of a project for homeless and abused women in Wolverhampton. I was very young and very green, I think I was 27 at the time. I saw women who’d been beaten black and blue by men; women marginalised and dismissed and disbelieved. Their stories have lived with me ever since. Then I joined Refuge in 1983, and the rest is history.”

Refuge supports some 5,000 women and children every day, providing specialist domestic violence services, and supporting women who have experienced sexual violence, modern slavery, ‘honour’ based violence, forced marriage, and other abuse. The charity raises awareness to prevent domestic violence, while influencing policy nationally and locally.

This represents a major transformation from the charity Horley joined in the 1980s. She was “astonished” at what she saw upon visiting the women’s refuge in Chiswick, with around 150 women and children crammed into a run down eight bedroom house.

Horley says despite the conditions being “straight out of Dickens”, those taking refuge in the centre preferred it to living with a violent attacker.


Refuge’s annual result for the year to March 2016 shows income rose 10 per cent to £11.3m. Contracts for support services accounted for 39.5 per cent of income, while donations and legacies contributed 22 per cent. This compares to 36 per cent and 21 per cent respectively in 2014-15.

Funding has reduced over several years, and Horley says the issue is not unique to Refuge. Indeed, in some local authority areas there is now no specialist refuge provision at all.

“We are the largest provider in the country, yet Refuge has experienced cuts to 80 per cent of its services since 2011. Across the country 17 per cent of specialist refuge provision has been lost since 2010. These services that have been built up over decades are quickly being wiped out.”

Whilst Refuge is pleased to have recently been awarded a grant from the Tampon Tax Fund, funding remains piecemeal. So Refuge is working hard to attract voluntary income.

The charity has achieved some important wins. Almost 6,000 people donated to Refuge in 2014-15, up 20 per cent on the year before.

The charity’s Walk4 event, in which hundreds of people walk across iconic London bridges to raise awareness of domestic violence and funds for Refuge, generated £85,000. A range of corporates also support the charity, and Refuge attracts support from hundreds of runners and cyclists in events around the country.

Good fortune helps too. A storyline on BBC 4 radio soap The Archers saw one of the characters subjected to domestic abuse over a number of months. Refuge supporter Paul Trueman then created a JustGiving page to raise funds for the real Helen Titcheners of the world. At press time this campaign had raised over £172,000 for the charity, totalling more than £200,000 including Gift Aid.

“It is a tough fundraising environment because all charities need to grow voluntary income. It follows that cuts in statutory funding are going to have a knock on effect and charities will need to turn to the general public to plug the gaps through fundraising. We value our supporters enormously; but as the effects from the challenging economic climate deepen Refuge will need more and more public support.”


Refuge is committed to ensuring its services are as effective as possible, and is proud to have achieved ISO 9001 certification for the consistent quality of its work across the organisation. The charity’s interventions have also been independently evaluated by NEF Consulting, which found every £1 invested in Refuge’s services yields £4.94 in social value. Refuge saves around £5.9m of public money across the health and justice systems per year.

Part of this commitment to effectiveness lies in the charity’s focus on collection and use of data. Refuge’s bespoke case management system, named IMPACT, tracks and stores data on a service user’s entire engagement with the charity and the outcomes achieved.

IMPACT provides notifications of gaps in a service user’s casework ensuring delivery is as complete and effective as possible.

Crucially, the system holds data on around 55,000 cases. This rich dataset helps the charity prove its effectiveness. Surveys of those leaving services reveal 96 per cent of clients felt safer, 92 per cent reported an improved quality of life, and 76 per cent reported an end to all physical abuse.

“Armed with those figures and all the evidence we have created we can make a very convincing argument both to state and voluntary bodies for support,” Horley says.

“I can’t stress enough how important data is in terms of convincing people that you are effective as an organisation.”


Data also helps Refuge plan where to direct its efforts, but Horley says this is a collaborative process with a range of voices involved. An example is in the charity’s advocacy work; Refuge does not have a single policy officer, rather frontline staff and women who access Refuge’s services provide views on policy and inform strategy.

“We have a participatory approach to our business planning. There’s no point in a senior management team sitting at the centre developing services for women. We consult women, we run focus groups, we actually talk to the victims. I’ve been to some of the focus groups and try to hear from women what their experiences are and what services they value most.”

The charity runs community outreach programmes, a national helpline with Women’s Aid, and a range of culturally specific services such as outreach services for Vietnamese and Eastern European communities.

The charity launched an Independent Sexual Violence Adviser service in the Thames Valley region working across 15 local authorities in 2015, with a view to offering similar services elsewhere in future.

Refuge is also increasingly supporting victims of modern slavery and human trafficking, and Horley sits on the advisory panel that assists and informs Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner Kevin Hyland OBE.

Horley says Refuge will continue to push hard to raise funds to provide further services, and innovate in its delivery. But she is clear on the importance of Refuge’s traditional core role.

“Some women absolutely have to have a place of safety. Sometimes people think ‘we have enough refuges in the country, we don’t need to do any more’. There is even a view that refuges are old fashioned and that they are too expensive for the State to fund. People who do not understand the true reality of domestic violence tend to suggest a move towards community based services instead. But in my experience no country, however good or bad its response to domestic violence, has ever phased out women’s refuges. And let us not forget, two women are killed every week in this country by a current or former partner. It is no exaggeration to say that refuges provide abused women and children with an essential lifeline. The reality is we need more of all types of services to meet the demand; as things stand we are a long way off achieving that ambition.”

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