CEO interview: Judith Moran on the need for greater optimism in the sector

At times like these, when politics seems to have gone mad, it’s important to remember what should be a fundamental aim of our society: the need to tackle poverty, which creates or contributes to so many of the issues charities exist to address.

We live in one of the richest countries in the world, yet poverty is still present in every community in the UK and endemic in many places. But Judith Moran, chief executive of anti-poverty charity Quaker Social Action (QSA) says there’s nothing to be gained from throwing up your hands in despair. “If you didn’t have hope and optimism, you wouldn’t do this sort of work,” she says.

Although QSA and many other charities do fantastic work to alleviate some of the causes and effects of poverty, hope and optimism can feel futile. QSA was founded in 1867 by Peter Bedford, a Quaker silk merchant who was horrified by the conditions he saw in the East End of London. Some 152 years later, the charity is still there, but so is the poverty.

Moran refuses to be pessimistic. Her hopefulness and commitment to this cause are both products of her background and her childhood in Brandon, a former mining village in County Durham, where she grew up during the period after the local pit had closed.

“I grew up seeing the strength you get when people come together and collaborate; and how amazing that is – but it was a crisis,” she says.

There was no encouragement to leave the area – her mother disapproved of her plan to attend university, but Moran stayed at school, took her A-levels, then won a place at the University of Sheffield to study English literature, which remains a passion.

Leaving university with no clear idea of what to do next, she found her way to Haringey, north London, taking a job as a frontline charity worker supporting disabled people in the area. It was a revelation, showing her how society sometimes makes life even more difficult for vulnerable people. London was a revelation, too: a richly diverse and exciting city. She has stayed in both the charity sector and the capital ever since.

Moran spent most of the 1990s working for a series of charities, gradually taking on management roles and completing a postgraduate course in charity sector management at Goldsmiths College. In 1998, she took a job at the NCVO, as management development manager, with a remit to promote effective management and leadership in the sector.

She knew she enjoyed management, but wanted a role where there was a close connection to frontline services. This led her to apply for the post of chief executive of QSA in 2000. She admits she didn’t know much about Quakers, but says: “The more I found out about Quakers, the more excited I felt about working in a Quaker-funded organisation”. “It’s a wonderful thing for us to live up to the Quaker in our name: it’s a by-word for integrity, honesty, kindness and equality.”

Moving on up

In 2000, the charity only had 10 staff (today it has 23) and a very local focus. Projects included Homestore, which has now run for 30 years, selling donated, good quality used furniture and new low cost beds, mattresses and white goods.

Since then, Moran and her colleagues have developed other successful projects that have helped to broaden the organisation’s impact. The one of which she is proudest is Down To Earth, launched in 2010, which helps bereaved people with limited financial resources to manage the cost of a funeral for family members. Still the only project of its kind in the UK, it now helps about 800 people each year to find the most affordable, yet appropriate funeral arrangement and to mitigate any resulting financial debt as painlessly as possible.

QSA then used the profile gained through Down To Earth to launch the Fair Funerals campaign, which ran from 2014 to 2018. More than one in three funeral directors in the UK have now signed the Fair Funerals Pledge, guaranteeing their lowest prices are visible online.

The campaign has also encouraged the government to introduce a Child’s Funeral Fund in England and Wales; and stopped some very unpleasant practices carried out by some local councils that were seeking to discourage people on low incomes from asking for state support with funeral costs – such as stopping relatives attending a funeral or refusing to give them the ashes of the deceased.

“At its most there were two part-time staff on that campaign and they have changed the funeral industry,” says Moran. “And we did it aligned with our values: by being reasonable and pushing forward what we believe to be in the best interests of the vulnerable people we’re advocating for.”

Another project of which she is very proud is Move On Up, which provides four properties in east London for up to 12 young adult carers to live in together as their first base after leaving the family home.

“There are 250,000 young adult carers in the UK,” Moran explains. “They’ve often had interrupted schooling and may have struggled with bullying, or making friends. We wondered, where’s the support to help these young people get an identity beyond being a carer, to do the things young people usually do?”

Those helped by the project can stay in the Move On Up property for up to two years. “They can live with other people who will know where they are coming from because they may have had a similar experience; they have their own physical and mental space; and get support from staff to help them think about what they might do next,” says Moran. “It could be transformative.”

She enthuses about the process of developing new ideas for the organisation, reading research about social problems and trying to learn from solutions being devised elsewhere.

“Not everything we do has got to be unique and ground-breaking,” she says. “What matters most is how we deliver the services: working with people, not doing something to them. Our mission is about enabling people on low incomes to seek solutions to issues that impact their lives; then sharing our learning where it benefits other communities.”

A poverty of hope

Asked what the charity’s founder would make of the work it is doing today, Moran says she thinks Peter Bedford would feel “profound sadness” that QSA still needed to exist in 2019. “It’s a stain on our conscience, as a society, that so many people live in poverty,” she says. “it’s not just about tangible, material poverty. It’s poverty of connections, of hope.”

Yet she still sees reasons to be hopeful. “I’m a very optimistic person. I think one thing we are seeing in all sorts of ways at the moment is people organising or mobilising to try and make the world a better place.”

There is certainly no shortage of that drive within the charity sector and even within politics, although this energy is not always well directed, she suggests. “I think our sector is sometimes set up to compete with itself. We are a jewel in the crown of this country and we could make a much more powerful case if we talked about what we do as a sector. We’re always identifying ourselves in relation to government and wanting government to do something different. Let’s just talk about what we think our society needs and be more assertive about it.”

But she also rails against the short-sightedness of the state failing to invest in its own people to help them out of poverty. She points out that she could only attend university because she qualified for a full student grant – “and I’m now a higher-rate taxpayer”.

“The investment this country made in my education has now paid off down the line. That’s a long term perspective. But people who are 16 or 17 now are not in the position to make the choice I made.

“I would love a government to lift its eyes beyond winning the next election, to think about achieving longer term social change. There’s got to be infrastructure to give people decent housing and decent jobs – it feels like those are the two things people need above all to have some sort of fighting chance.”

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