Article in Sunday Times, Sunday 14th June
First printed in The Sunday Times, online 11th June 2022, in print 12 June 2022.
How a leap of faith connected givers to the needy
I wrote this piece about an idea I had which I had battled with for several years but finally got off the ground. It has little to do with business but there is definitely a bit here about persistence, overcoming obstacles, and determination - and, I’m glad to say, it has a happy ending.
I don’t exactly remember how the then-Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, and his lovely wife Margaret came to be having tea at our home but it was going well. I had struggled literally for years to get friends in the church to show some enthusiasm for my idea to help those in need which I was convinced was a winner. Even though my wife thought it was a great idea she agreed with the consensus - that folk in the church were just too busy.
It was around 2005 and this new-fangled invention called the internet was really taking off. I observed that the vast property portfolio of the church wasn’t exactly over used, the church itself was under attack for its poor relationships with both women and the gay community (not a great marketing approach), and poverty wasn’t exactly going away.
My idea was for a website using volunteers from churches, trained in the basics, who would load requests for cash from those in need within their community onto a website (irrespective of their religious persuasion). Donors from anywhere in the world could see these requests and contribute directly if they wanted to. The overheads would be tiny and the hope was that every penny would go to the recipient rather than on overheads. So far so good. But after knocking on a lot of doors I was beginning to agree that the only things pioneers received for their efforts were arrows in their backsides.
Until the aforementioned tea that is. I did my pitch to John. To his great credit, he loved the idea and said ‘let’s get on with it’. And Margaret, who had just finished a job assignment in Leeds, was happy to help, too - bingo! But there was one problem-all the best domain names to do with poverty/helping the poor had gone. John said leave it with him and he came up with ‘Acts 435’ which was available. It’s a good catchy name/number which refers to the verse in the Bible “giving to everyone who has need”.
We then had to put a team together. Margaret agreed to be chair of the trustees, and John our patron, but we needed someone to run it. Margaret placed an ad for a part-time book-keeper and offered office space at Bishopthorpe Palace, south of York. Only one person responded, but she turned out to be a lot more than a bookkeeper. Her name was Jenny Herrera and she was a fully qualified chartered accountant, had been a missionary in Guatemala running a children’s charity, and had returned home to start a family. And I think it fair to say she was somewhat overqualified for the job she had been asked to do. She soon got the show on the road for minimal cost and we learnt as we went.
Two of the biggest challenges were how did we know the money wasn’t being claimed fraudulently and how would the donations match the requests? We put a cap on requests of three per person, initially for a maximum of £100 (now £150). The amount was set to cover short term emergencies that wouldn’t be covered by benefits; for people slipping through the cracks - whose bed or washing machine broke, who were faced with an unexpected heating bill, or a pair of football boots or school uniform which they couldn’t afford. It might not sound like much but for those who don’t have it, it is a big deal. All applicants are met informally by the church volunteer, who we call advocates.
And over the 12 years we have been going, fraud has been minuscule.
As for requests matching donors, we don’t even employ a fundraiser. People’s compassion has provided every week so far over all those years. When the need is greatest, nearly every Christmas has seen zero requests outstanding on the website with all wants met. The cost-of-living crisis we have at the moment means this has never been more important for people who are struggling. Donors receive a personalised thank you from the recipient which is a nice touch.
Some 70 per cent of donors tick the "gift aid" box which more than covers our tiny overheads and leaves a nice surplus for an emergency fund should it be needed.Which means that absolutely every penny given is going to good use and not to cover our costs.
This makes a virtuous circle fuelled by people’s urge to help others which just keeps on growing.We are in 700 churches already, have helped literally tens of thousands of people, and we think the charity gives the general public a very good example of what the church should be. I only wish the latter would make a lot more of its land available for truly affordable housing but that, as they say, is another story.