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Veterans charity CEO calls for reset on approach to funding

Veterans charity CEO calls for reset on approach to funding

Sir Keir later made the point that money was “being sprayed at companies that don’t deliver” | Credit: PA Images

Dr Hugh Milroy, CEO | Veterans Aid

8 min read Partner content

‘Make online contributions to charities that are struggling’ was the Prime Minister’s plea to MPs in a recent exchange about Government support for veterans organisations. As the Government pledges another £254m to tackle rough sleeping, now more than ever, it is important to target spending wisely.

In a recent Armistice Day exchange about government spending, Labour leader Keir Starmer invited the Prime Minister and fellow MPs to praise the ‘remarkable work’ of veterans’ charities – singling out two of the nation’s largest and most well-known for mention.

Sir Keir pointed out that they had seen a significant drop in funding since the start of the pandemic – to the point where they were having to make ‘difficult decisions’ about redundancies and keeping facilities open.

Of course this is also true of the wider charity sector, to which my points are equally relevant.

The exchange provoked a rightfully enthusiastic and positive response, but it was a general one; predicated, I suspect, on an assumption that veterans’ charities were homogenous and equally engaged in providing practical and immediate support for struggling veterans.

This clearly isn’t the case and I want to push for greater thought about this area prior to any allocation of new funding. 

Government support for charities in the present climate must be needs driven. This is a time of crisis, in which financing of non-essential services seems very  inappropriate.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation predicts that 2.5m households are worried about paying rent over winter, with 700,000 already in arrears and 350,000 at risk of eviction. This will only be compounded by a rise in unemployment, predicted to be the sharpest for half a century. Naturally, some of those affected will be ex-servicemen and women.

Let’s get much smarter about how Government money is used to address social exclusion. 

To date Veterans Aid has provided 275 days of uninterrupted service since the introduction of COVID restrictions during which  we have dealt with calls from some very desperate individuals.

All throughout this challenging period, our clients – i.e. veterans, their families, and those who care for them - have been found to be struggling to get help with the most basic of needs. 

People have been directed to our door from national charities - organisations with assets and incomes that make ours look like small change - having been told that Veterans Aid will pay for things that they are ‘unable to afford’.

Sir Keir later made the point that money was “being sprayed at companies that don’t deliver”. 

At a time when the clamour for funds to support struggling charities is getting louder, I think the time has come to relate that charge to funding in the veterans’ sector. 

In short, let’s get much smarter about how Government money is used to address social exclusion. 

Funding systems, as opposed to actual delivery areas, will only serve to increase the problem. 

In the natural world, the species that survive are the ones that are  lean, flexible, adaptable and responsive to changing conditions.  In the business world too, this seems to hold true. In the wider context, it simply does not make sense to fund providers whose services do not align with urgent need.

There is no starker illustration of this than the case of the former serviceman found sitting in a bare house by police officers investigating a possible COVID rules breach. Suffering from Parkinson's Disease and PTSD the pensioner, who had served for 18 years, had nothing to eat and was using the hob rings on his cooker to keep warm -  on Remembrance Sunday.  

The tragedy is that there is money within the ex-service community but for some reason, as in this case, it’s not being delivered rapidly enough to those most in need. 

There seems to be a bump in the road!

We see clients from all around Britain; not because they are ‘damaged ex-service personnel who can’t cope’, but because of unemployment, debt, social isolation, illness, loneliness and, latterly,  the impact of  COVID-19.

Veterans Aid’s significant experience of delivery, over the past nine months, has highlighted the need for a review of what support for veterans, during and after the pandemic, should look like.

The pandemic has clearly illustrated the need to reduce the distance between those with (frequently significant) funds and those who should be benefiting from them.

 Practical support, targeted effectively and delivered rapidly, has never been more crucial. 

Just as asymmetrical and cyber warfare has altered  the landscape of Defence, the battleground upon which we fight homelessness must also change.

Veterans Aid’s significant experience of delivery, over the past nine months, has highlighted the need for a review of what support for veterans, during and after the pandemic, should look like.

And yes, I am calling for a ‘re-think’ and suggesting a more veteran-centric approach towards provision of timely and relevant aid.

As resources shrink and competition  for charitable funding increases the Government will come under increasing pressure to provide support, from a plethora of diverse organisations.

While I have sympathy for many, I would argue that addressing poverty, particularly when it leads to homelessness, must be a priority,  because the long-term financial and social consequences are unthinkable and expensive.

There needs to be a clear distinction between  what is essential and what is simply ‘nice to have’ even when proffered as a solution by a brand name.

The major problem reported by our clients is lack of focus when trying to access practical help from ‘the system’. 

Charities, call-centres, helplines and online FAQs abound, and admittedly play a part in the solution, but they simply do not deliver when urgent rent bills or debts need to be paid – when eviction and family separation is imminent.

 In my honest opinion preventing closure of some charitable facilities should not be weighed against addressing street homelessness when considering what to fund.

If the COVID pandemic has taught us anything it is that preservation of human life is paramount, be the individuals ex-service or otherwise.

There is ample evidence that wise investment saves not just lives but money. A recent UCL study estimated that the Government’s initial ‘Everyone In’ response prevented 266 deaths, 21,092 infections, 1,164 hospital admissions and 338 admissions to Intensive Care Units among England’s homeless population.

 In a separate report its researchers concluded that  homeless adults were 1.8 times more likely to have cardiovascular diseases, putting them at higher risk of severe coronavirus and early death.

Of course, not all veterans charities exist to help those in crisis and it is entirely right that funds are raised to enable provision of  ancillary and non-essential services, but let’s be clear about where priorities lie. 

Indiscriminate funding will deliver patchy outcomes at a time when the value of every penny is critical.

Any funding from central Government should be directed to those best able to address crisis, not those whose brand recognition makes them automatic beneficiaries.

My fear is that, paradoxically, such a well-intentioned approach could actually distance veterans in most acute need from the practical help they so urgently require.

This is a heartfelt appeal for Government to invest directly in what works as opposed to funding by brand in the world of social exclusion, homelessness and, in the  case of veterans, a plea to dig deeper to find out what is working well for them and what isn’t.

The Government’s announcement to spend another £254m on tackling rough sleeping and homelessness could not have come at a better time, but it must be targeted with precision on the fastest, most effective and proven delivery agencies.

It grieves me to think how much has been spent on ‘homelessness’ over the past decade, but it’s a spectre that still haunts us and given the financial context, without a radical rethink of funding methodology, it will grow. 

I’ve long argued the case for looking beyond the  ‘sad story’ funding paradigm and taking a more forensic, outcome-incentivised approach. To put it bluntly, payment by results!

This will provide the impetus for a true quantum leap towards defeating homelessness. Successful outcomes should be actively encouraged so that money invested with the expectation of a positive return - rather than emotionally stimulated benevolence - can become a real force for societal change.

This is a heartfelt appeal for Government to invest directly in what works as opposed to funding by brand in the world of social exclusion, homelessness and, in the  case of veterans, a plea to dig deeper to find out what is working well for them and what isn’t.

But the answers mustn’t just come from marketing departments, stakeholder generated research or ‘evidence’ from those with a vested interest in perpetuating the status quo of which they are a part. It  must be inclusive, veteran-centric, outcome validated and not based on exaggerated part-truths or the needs of a system.

Post-pandemic is a perfect time for the Office for Veteran Affairs to put this to the test, around the country, by speaking to veterans who have faced severe adversity.

I represent one charity, albeit one with significant experience in this area, but the men and women who have stared homelessness or poverty in the face, and needed urgent help, are the real experts when it comes to identifying what works – and what doesn’t.

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