Adam Scorer: "Sometimes you need to bite the hand that feeds you"

Thrust into the frontlines of charity work, National Energy Action's CEO, Adam Scorer, talks to Melissa Moody about his passion for social justice, leading in current circumstances, and the need for fighting against your funders.

“I accidentally came into the charitysector,” Adam Scorer says, with a chuckle. The chief executive of National Energy Action found himself heading towards the third sector after “utterly failing” to progress his PhD studies.

“It took me forever to realise that I was going to be the worst academic that had ever walked the earth and then after a couple of years of that, you suddenly realise you’ve got to do something with your life,” he says.

From then, he zeroed in on things that were important to him, and social justice was one of those key points. After volunteering, one of his first jobs was at the London Voluntary Service Council. “I’m sure I stretched the envelope about my abilities, qualifications, character and skills to get myself a job.”

The role was solid learning ground for Scorer, working with “terrifyingly motivated, articulate,
competent, multitasking individuals.” He learnt skills he took on to other jobs, including policy and comms roles at the Consumers Association, Energy Watch and with the National Consumer Council within its consumer focus arm, which was eventually merged into Citizens Advice. It was in these roles that Scorer got his first taste of the link between consumer politics and essential services.

“At that stage you’ve focused on something for such a long time, that actually you do know what you want to do,” he explains. “For me, that was going back to the beginning and the combination of three factors – the way in which consumer politics and market regulations around essential services fail folk on lower incomes, the power of authenticity and advocacy strong charities have in the sector, and lastly just the breadth of the issue.”

This is how he found himself as CEO of National Energy Action in December 2017. “It brought so many things together,” he explains.

“You say, ‘let’s do the big, change the world stuff’, and the best way to change the world for me was in a reasonably small, medium-sized charity that had singularity of vision, purpose,
authority and confidence.”

A critical friend

But since joining the organisation, it has been one challenge after another. Keeping a medium-sized charity above water is one of the biggest ongoing ones. Although headquartered in Northeast England, it works across England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with its 80-plus strong staff similarly dispersed.

When he began, the NEA didn’t publicly fundraise, it gets no core funding or government grants – the income was solely generated through relationships with energy companies.

“That’s a big challenge,” he says. But then the pandemic came along, and although it wasn’t hit as much as others financially, the “relentlessly supportive and upbeat” culture within the organisation was threatened.

“Really quickly you realise that those strengths and ties are so much stronger than the pandemic,” he says.

As the pandemic eased off and the charity took a breath, the cost-of-living crisis started to pose an even bigger challenge – one where the NEA was catapulted into the centre of national public debates.

“You find yourself inhabiting the world where the big political focus is, and you need to respond to that…the prospect of there being zero tools to be able to support that was pretty terrifying and remains terrifying.

“And there’s always a sense that you’re aiming for an asset for some gain or for some value rather than just testifying to how things are bad, because without that, your ability to shape events and influence other people’s responses just degrades because there’s only so much that people can take,” Scorer explains.

As the charity is largely funded by energy companies, Scorer walks a fine line. He can’t forget his funders, but it’s something they largely do out of requirement, and he becomes more of a “critical friend”.

The charity, and Scorer himself, actively challenge the companies about what they do, how they’ve failed and how they can help.

“Sometimes you need to be prepared to bite the hand that feeds you in these sorts of circumstances, but you’ve got to do it in a particularly productive and constructive way.”

He still regards the whole experience as a fundamentally positive one. They haven’t always necessary had “robust” conversations with [the organisations] but they’ve always tried
to get constructive outcomes that are then reflected across business operations.

Of course, it isn’t just Scorer working at the charity, and the people who work with him are the best part about his job, he says. “It’s the quality of the people; it’s the individuals and it’s this relentless determination to make a difference even when it just looks absolutely impossible.”

“There’ll be some who are utterly confident in their own abilities to shape and drive stuff, but I’m not one of them,” he admits. Scorer calls it a “relentless compensation” for his own weaknesses, adding that the people you work with allow you to take on a leadership role “because otherwise it wouldn’t go very far at all.”

The organisation works with people in crisis, and the staff reflect that, he explains. “You’ve got no more top tips, there’s no more little one percenters that make any difference. It’s gone. It’s finished. And you get struggling to cope replaced by despair and desperation and hopelessness and anger. For people having to help at the end of the phone, coping with that is incredibly distressing and challenging and yet hugely rewarding.”

‘Be more Sheila’

The relentless determination of his staff is evident in Scorer’s own work, and beliefs, as he talks. As someone who has been involved in the sector for many years, he says he hasn’t seen a “huge shift” across the board of leadership in the charity sector, but certain qualities and requirements come to the fore at different times.

Comms has become an essential skill in the age of social media, as well as the ability to think entrepreneurially. Many in his position are aware of the biggest challenge of getting core funding, and not determining the mission of the charity by the funding sources available.

“Not chasing the money but trying to find a package that fits the DNA of the organisation.

That’s one of the biggest challenges I think many of us have experienced, especially those of us who have many more contractual relationships and delivery as opposed to core funding.”

“And I say this as a middle-aged, white man, with not much hair and a poor beard, but you’re starting to see greater diversity of leadership across the sector.”

Scorer points out that it’s not just in terms of gender and ethnicity – “although we’re not doing well on ethnicity, let’s be honest,” – but in terms of the lived experience of the people with the issues the charities are battling. But as always, more can be done, he believes. “[Lived experience] should be included on boards, in senior leadership and spokespeople. Enable that louder voice to be generated by the people themselves,” he emphasises, something that
NEA are trying to do – particularly with the cost-of-living crisis.

As the conversation moves on to leaders Scorer admires, he doesn’t hesitate in mentioning Sheila McKechnie, the former CEO of Shelter and the Consumers’ Association, where Scorer has the pleasure of working with her.

“I think everyone gets the opportunity to work with someone who they just think ‘oh yeah, that’s it, that’s what you want to be’. Or even if you don’t feel it, you just think ‘if only I could be a bit more like Sheila, or think or respond like Sheila’. She was a tremendous tour de force…utterly inspiring.”

The other was the American emancipatory abolitionist Frederick Douglass, who freed slaves. Scorer came across him while living in Newcastle, where the NEA is based. “I don’t think I’ve ever read speeches by anybody where they carry such spiritual, emotional and intellectual weight and power as some of the stuff from that man,” a name he likely wouldn’t have encountered any other way.

So what does the future look like for the NEA? “It’s unrelenting,” he tells me. “So unrelenting for everyone across the organisation.” The urgency of it “weighs quite heavily”, he adds, with no end in sight.

But there’s also an opportunity here to look at the way things can – and should – change. Although the current crisis has largely been caused by outside influences – the war in Ukraine and recovery from the pandemic – they’ve exposed “this whole raft of failures and weaknesses”.

Whilst much of the war in Ukraine is out of our control, Scorer argues that charity leaders can work to find ‘proper solutions’ to things that have exacerbated the problem. “We start by rebuilding regulation and the welfare system, and we will literally rebuild people’s homes to make sure we aren’t just mopping up the flood forever. We can find a way of turning off the tap as well.”

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