You’re a free spirit…

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Photo of Sarah FindlayWhy a small charity in Glasgow is refusing to become a social enterprise

Sarah Findlay runs Starter Packs a small charity in Glasgow that collects household items and gives them to people who need to get themselves back on their feet, generally after homelessness. The charity also provides volunteering for socially disenfranchised people who are far removed from the labour market. As jobs are created, Starter Packs employs young people who have no work history as a way to get them back into the labour market.

Sarah says that Starter Packs has grown enormously in ”direct correlation to the levels of poverty in Glasgow”. Their premises haven’t changed from when they started 10 years ago. They are providing between 250 and 300 families a month with assistance and this is rising, which Sarah describes as “a massive increase”. They have 10 staff and 25 regular volunteers from very different backgrounds. Sarah says the work costs “about £200,000 a year and for that we can help about 3,000 families, provide the community with 10 jobs, prevent about 350 tons of landfill.”

The charity has never enjoyed a high level of council funding. Sarah says: ”One year I managed to harangue them, embarrass them into giving us 20 grand as a contribution to our service costs. We’ve always managed to find the money from somewhere to fund ourselves and we’ve evolved the way we’ve operated to do that.”

In 2010 Sarah devised a model where Housing Associations made a contribution for each tenant Starter Packs helped. The biggest landlord in the city ran a successful pilot programme with them and because of that others have followed.

In the last two years Starter Packs has been under pressure from the voluntary sector, government and the council to become a social enterprise. Sarah says that they’ve been offered £30,000 to recruit an interim manager so that they can grasp being a social enterprise and make the project more business like. She says: ”That’s missing the point entirely, we want to take it back to something very simple which is we just want to help people. But the pressure is almost overwhelming.

“There’s a whole industry based on making sure that there are jobs for all these middle managers, they can all justify what they do, they can all toddle round all our community projects and can just discount all the leg work, the grit, the grim, all the work that we do because it’s not done the way they want it to be done.

“It feels as if the word ‘community’ is somehow a dirty word and it feels as if the voluntary sector has been Thatcherised. Everything’s a business transaction, everything’s got to have a full cost recovery element and that is just so far away from the heart and soul of this organisation. The community sector’s under attack.”

Large organisations are part of the problem. Sarah gives the example of Zero Waste Scotland which she says has a director on a five-figure salary with a 4½ – 5 million pound budget. There’s no mechanism for complaining about their promotion of so-called social enterprise and even the local SMP “says my hands are tied”. Sarah says that Zero waste Scotland just spent £50,000 sponsoring the Tea in the Park festival promoting re-use but she can’t get £5,000 to help get premises that are fit for purpose.

“Promoting re-use for us is a tool to tackle poverty,” says Sarah. “We are socially enterprising; we run a small charity shop. We’re probably more enterprising than most of the big social enterprises that I see because all I see is that they’re still grant dependent they just frame it in a different way. I think in Scotland at the moment 95% of the money that’s available through government programmes is going to 7% of the organisations. But we will not sacrifice our principles.”

At first Sarah was excited by the idea of social enterprise: “I thought it could be a new model, a new way of doing things but it isn’t. It’s just a re-packaging of something that means people further up the food chain can keep control of everything and that scares me. It really scares me. There are really good projects going to the wall left, right and centre. Diversity has gone. I think ‘charity’ will be a defunct word in the next couple of years.”

Sarah says that the mainstream furniture project in Glasgow gets £250,000 per year from the council and she keeps asking why that is. She’s told it’s because they pick up items from the civic community site. Starter Packs do that too, have permission, don’t charge and give the things away. Sarah says: “We think it’s more to do with the fact we stand up and we’ll speak out. The furniture sector used to be quite radical, people got into it because they saw poverty and they wanted to do something to help and now even that has gone – it’s business, business, business. People don’t seem to be part of the equation.”

What keeps Sarah going is her belief in what Starter Packs is doing: “It would really make a difference if people understood how bad it is. If people could open their hearts a little bit more, start caring before it’s too late – remember you’re a free spirit. I know we’re not alone. I know there are projects like us. I know there other people out there thinking the way we are and doing this kind of work, in whatever form it takes. There is an urgency for us.”

For others in the community and voluntary sector Sarah says: “If we’re all fighting for survival, if you’re too busy being stressed out, you don’t feel the joy. They don’t want us feeling the joy. Feeling the joy – that’s powerful stuff, that’s powerful energy.”

Sarah Findlay was talking to Nazreen A Subhan in June 2012 as part of NCIA’s stories project.

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