Veterans Aid: Thinking about tomorrow... but acting today
Timely interventions transform lives | Credit: Veterans Aid
Charities across the country are facing imminent failure due to the impact of coronavirus. CEO of Veterans Aid, Dr Hugh Milroy, explains to Glyn Strong why the charity’s model has enabled it to operate effectively under lockdown restrictions and what the long term implications are for others in the sector.
On March 20th Civil Society reported that amidst the Covid 19 pandemic, charities nationwide were facing collapse. This, it said, was largely related to loss of income, “Many charity shops have closed and fundraising events and activities have been cancelled. Many charities do not have the reserves to keep up with the demand for services.”
The twofold impact of this predicted meltdown will be loss of support for potential beneficiaries and mass redundancies. Furthermore, groups once guaranteed to prompt public generosity will no longer be seen as uniquely deserving. As PM Boris Johnson said, ‘We’re all in this together’. Everyone is at risk from coronavirus and its consequences.
Hugh Milroy believes that this period in our history represents an opportunity for real change.
“Veterans Aid was as prepared as it was possible to be for the current scenario and has been functioning at around 90% capacity since before lockdown. Early on we moved to remote working from our Victoria HQ, something we do regularly, so were equipped to continue our support and prevention service across the UK and beyond. Indeed in mid-April we were contacted by a former RMP soldier in Cambodia, facing homelessness as a result of Covid 19. We are supporting him practically, in every way we can.
“Much of our work has always been done at a distance, through virtual interaction. Prevention by swift and intensely practical intervention is at the core of our operating model and this critically different approach to tackling homelessness has never been more vital than today. Of course it’s now taking more time to provide support and there are limitations – but we are still very busy because people are finding themselves in truly awful situations. For the most part we are able to do something to help. It is the ‘doing’ that distinguishes us and which makes such a difference to so many desperate people.
“Nearer home we are actioning referrals from charities and other well-known veterans organisations who are well-intentioned but unable to provide practical help. Their websites and phone lines simply signpost veterans to other services. Two weeks ago a desperate former Coldstream Guardsman contacted our Ops Team after trying to get help from at least half a dozen other charities and his local authority. He was facing homelessness and was in utter despair because no-one was picking up the phone. We did however and, with a little effort and imagination, got him into safe, temporary accommodation.
“In another case the wife of a veteran with serious health problems, PTSD and diabetes called us when, as a direct result of Covid-19 issues, they got into serious debt. The organisation they sought help from insisted that it could only be considered after evaluation at a face-to-face meeting… which wouldn’t be possible for many weeks and in any case couldn’t be done because the husband was shielding. Catch-22? This really isn’t good enough!
“VA routinely uses Zoom, augmented by email, text and telephone contact. We are still enabling therapy sessions for clients and in one case providing specialist substance misuse rehab support, by digital means. Hiding behind process is a very poor excuse for failure to act.”
The examples are legion and Milroy is quick to point out that it is prescience alone that has enabled Veterans Aid to carry on operating.
“VA has a light footprint, it operates centrally from just two London locations, but the charity is resilient and we have repeatedly practiced crisis scenarios in terms of operational activity and infection management. For example, the VA staff looking after 60 lockdown veterans in our New Belvedere House residential facility had sanitisation and isolation protocols in place rapidly and while there are undeniable challenges, we are coping well.
“Operationally VA is punching well above its weight; we’re putting energy into providing real-time help rather than worrying about potential loss of income at this point in the crisis.”
The elephant in the room is usually funding and VA is not one of the UK’s wealthiest charities. Compared with some ‘counterparts’ its reserves are small – but unlike its clients, the charity is not in crisis.
“In part this is down to the VA business model, which is based on a Housing Benefit core income stream, augmented by donations and grants. And we have always tried to attract unrestricted funds,” says Milroy. “The nature of crisis is that you don’t see it coming. We have to be prepared to spend on what our clients need, when they need it. We don’t sit on ‘rainy day money. It rains every day at Veterans Aid!”
The universal cri de coeur as lockdown bites is for Government support and the Chancellor has already announced a £750 million aid package for frontline charities. But is this the answer? Milroy is wary.
“It would be morally reprehensible to award funding to large, traditionally operating organisations who are sitting on vast reserves and need a fortune just to switch the lights on. It would be equally wrong to prop-up agencies whose services are not based on need. In times of financial crisis, ‘nice to have’ simply doesn’t cut the mustard.
“If Covid-19 has demonstrated anything, it is that the old ways don’t work when faced by actual crisis – i.e. when swift, practical action is needed rather than the suggestion that an assessment, at some undetermined future date, might be possible. Just as it acted as an accelerant to businesses to adapt to meet new demands, the pandemic has illustrated how charities must also change; to become more agile, responsive and flexible. Funding must no longer be automatically allocated to familiar brands ‘because it always has been’. We must look for better ways of doing things and move towards a future where proven improved social outcomes are the premier arbiter for public funding. There can be no sunny upland where everything in the charity world will automatically be funded. There must be more scrutiny about delivery and looking to the wider picture. In business we are already seeing wide criticism of the very rich using public money to furlough staff.”
One gift this unexpected pandemic has bestowed is time to reflect and Milroy believes that it is the perfect moment to review assumptions about - and within - the charitable sector.
“There has always been an assumption that ‘big is best’ but recent events must call that into question. Sometimes the very size of an organisation can be its greatest problem. Labyrinthine, costly and largely irrelevant processes impede rather than help individuals in crisis.
“Veterans Aid is presently engaged with around 100 ex-servicemen and women – trying to broker practical solutions to complicated and frightening problems at a time of national confusion. What we are dealing with every day legitimises the role of the smaller, more agile organisation and highlights the fact that when people need urgent help, ‘benevolence’ is only part of the answer. And while ‘signposting’ may be a legitimate way to operate when everything is working, it can be woefully inadequate when the chips are down.
“We hear a lot about co-operation in the sector, as though it is a universal panacea, but true co-operation isn’t about process or systems; it’s about humanitarian interaction, focused on timely delivery of support to address critical, individual needs. If organisations can’t help when they are most needed, why fund them?
“The ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic will be long-term and already the Government is moving to shore up the consequences of the crisis by allocation of unprecedented emergency support – for employers, workers, the NHS etc. Its actions are that of a frontline agency faced with the knowledge that stability and future growth are totally dependent on timely and practical intervention – now!
“My belief is that this is what should drive future charity funding so that money is allocated, as a priority, to the small operational agencies that provide actual help to create capability growth. Transforming lives in harsh circumstances isn’t related to size or tradition, but to creating meaningful relationships that get the job done.”