BBC Radio 4’s Christmas appeal

Generally, £160 isn’t perceived as a lot of money. But it’s a sum that can mean a great deal. £160 is the size of the average grant awarded to vulnerable people by the Vicar’s Relief Fund, a small charity run from St Martin-in-the-Fields church in Trafalgar Square, central London. The fund is to help those in the greatest of need and suffering hardship from all over the UK.

St Martin’s has a long tradition of social care and as well as the grant-making fund supports over 7,000 homeless people a year at its shelter, the Connection.

All money distributed by the Vicar’s Relief Fund comes from a unique source, donations from BBC Radio 4 listeners, who respond to the station’s Christmas appeal.

Last Sunday (4 December) Radio 4 broadcast the annual St Martin’s Christmas appeal. The BBC has run the appeal every year on behalf of the church since 1927.

Last year it raised a record £600,000 and donations are divided between the Connection and the Vicar’s Relief Fund. Ninety eight per cent of money raised is used to help vulnerable people.

Two things are striking about the fund. The first is a refreshing lack of bureaucracy, unusual in the social care world. It means that grants can be issued quickly: about half go out within a day of being requested. That would be impossible in many charities, with their complex layers of management and traditions of deferring decisions upwards.

The second is the relatively small amounts given in grants, the average being £160. St Martin’s accepts that £160 is not going to solve all of a vulnerable person’s problems but administrator Craig Norman says it’s a start that can help people get back on track during often desperate times.

The speed at responding to people in great need is deliberate. “The trustees and the vicar have deferred decision-making to me,” says Norman, the fund’s sole employee. “Where other charities have to wait for the next trustee meeting before any decisions can be made, I can simply send off a cheque.”

Grant applications are made by social workers and other professionals, including prison, probation and housing staff. St Martin’s relies on professionals to assess their client’s needs and apply for a grant on their behalf. Grants pay for beds and bedding, clothes, cookers, furniture, baby equipment, arrears on rent, council tax and utility bills, and so on.

Norman receives a dozen requests for grants each day. “The hardest part of my job is turning down requests because, although there is a genuine need, there are other requests that are a higher priority, and there is only so much money in the fund, and my job is to make it last for the whole year,” says Norman.

“We’re not trying to do the job of any of these agencies so in a sense it’s relatively easy for us to make a small, one-off cash injection aimed at meeting a specific need. There may be reasons why the applying agency cannot make a grant themselves, due to budget constraints, or statutory limitations, or it may be that the support worker is applying to the Vicar’s Relief Fund as part of a package of support for their client that includes grants from other sources,” says Norman.

One Sheffield family, helped by the fund this year, illustrate well how a small sum makes a big difference.

James is 19. In February his mum died suddenly and James became parent to his 15-year-old sister, and brothers aged 12 and 14. He wanted to take on the tenancy of their house but had no money saved. He was frightened his siblings would go into care if he lost the family home.

James also had a lot to cope with, including his mum’s funeral and settling his siblings back in school after their dreadful loss. A grant from the Vicar’s Relief Fund arrived in two or three days and James used it to pay a week’s rent and buy food. The money got him through the immediate crisis.

 “I lost my mum, I could have lost my family,” says James. The money is vital. But it’s not just the cash, according to Norman. It’s also the “knowledge that somebody cares,” he says.

“It’s certainly the most fulfilling job I’ve ever done,” says Norman. “I suppose the only occupational hazard is compassion fatigue, but every so often I’ll get a thank you from someone who has been helped by a grant, which makes it all worthwhile.”


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