Challenges of the cross-border charity
James Jopling muses on the difficulties of working between Edinburgh and London after 15 years commuting between the two
The bulk of my charitable life (that which I characterise as the life I’ve led employed by the charity sector – although I’m sure I was a lovely boy before that) has been spent in what are often referred to as cross-border charities.
And I’ve lived this from both sides of the north/south border. As I write this on my 400th work trip between Edinburgh and London (an estimate that worryingly might be an accurate reflection of the past 15 years), it’s given me pause for thought as to how well such organisations reflect the needs of those they are there to help – and those who work for them too.
It can be too easy to reflect on the operational challenges that organisations can create, especially when the ultimate leadership of such charities as Cancer Research UK, Breast Cancer Now, Shelter and Samaritans rest with their chief executives based outside of Scotland. I’ve worked for all of these UK charities and they each address their nations presence in different ways through governance, responsibilities and practice.
Sometimes in relation to leadership roles in Scotland, the unspoken agreement is: “just don’t break anything – but do run it past us when you consider doing anything of note”
Sometimes in relation to leadership roles in Scotland, the unspoken agreement is: “just don’t break anything – but do run it past us when you consider doing anything of note”. And often that sentiment isn’t reciprocated as much as one might like.
In addition, I’ve experienced the challenges of reporting to a UK board of trustees in a meaningful way on progress when work here impacts on less than 10% of the UK population. Our achievements often aren’t big enough to warrant attention, yet our working practices – often by necessity – can be more innovative, inclusive and nimble. And that learning could be translated to our Southern colleagues more than it is.
Then there is juggling day-to-day experiences of cross-border charity existence. This includes reminding the UK press team when the school holidays are so a new campaign doesn’t land when no-one is here to respond; frequent discussions of the differences between an MSP and an MP; constantly pointing out that a Monday morning or Friday afternoon meeting requiring your attendance isn’t just challenging, it’s hugely expensive; breaking the news that a haggis isn’t a real creature.
Incredibly important work is done by UK-wide charities, whose role naturally extends beyond UK national boundaries but many are still struggling with the right governance and operational models to cope with what feels like a wider and wider gulf in policy priorities between nations. Indeed, in the current discussions around a fundraising regulatory framework for Scotland, there is a huge difference between Scottish only charities and charities that operate in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK and Europe. That is a difficult balance for the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations, the Institute of Fundraising, and others to reflect I’m sure.
None of these problems are insurmountable. We are more effective as a sector when we can reflect the aspirations of all of those organisations who save and change lives in our nation. And we need to challenge ourselves to find the best ways to do that.
James Jopling is executive director for Scotland for the Samaritans.