The elephant in the voluntary sector! Let’s Talk about it…

Last weekend, ahead of the main feature in the cinema, I watched the Time to Change advert for men’s mental health. Perhaps you’ve seen it? There are two men in the front of a Ford Transit, with an elephant in the rear. The driver notices something isn’t quite right with his friend. Rather than simply ignoring the matter, the driver pulls over, so that he can encourage his friend to talk about what’s on his mind.

The key message is not to let poor mental health to be the elephant in the room and if you notice your friend is acting differently, then ask them about it. It’s powerful. Ford reckons there are over a million journeys made in Ford Transits daily. By targeting men, who are notoriously reluctant to open up, Ford believes it is encouraging a space for men to talk about mental health every day. From a marketing view-point, this is a genius move by Ford.

From a humanitarian point of view, it sends out the right messages. This campaign seeks to change the conversation around mental health for the better. Why is this important? Because, as the Time to Change campaign advises, 1 in 4 people experience a mental health problem every year. By talking about mental health, we reduce the stigma that people feel and we normalise those conversations.

This struck a chord with me. What if mental health is the elephant in the voluntary sector?

Being a Voluntary Sector nerd, I had been reading the NCVO’s Almanac just a couple of hours before I saw the Ford advert. Now, I love the charity world and believe our sector is amazing. Just quick check of the Almanac advises there are now approx. 166,000 voluntary organisations in the UK, supporting our families and local communities (NCVO, 2018).

From schools, care services, social clubs to playgroups, charities exist in almost every part of our communities and our lives. They run our local village halls, campaign for our local interests, offer befriending services to our lonely and isolated neighbours, run football clubs for our children or support rough-sleeping people in our cities. Almost everyone, at some point in their lives, is touched by their reach.

In these 166,000 charities, there are now 853,000 employed people (NCVO, 2018). So, if we apply the 1 in 4 statistic to this figure, that means that 213,250 people in UK charities will experience a mental health problem this year. 213,250 people – Almost one quarter of a million! Each year. Wow....

However, this is likely to be an under-estimation.

It does not include 14.2 million people who volunteer each month, such as the boards of trustees who devote hours to overseeing their charities without remuneration.

So what does this mean for our sector and how are we to support these people?

Many large charities may already have programmes in place to assist their staff with their mental health issues. From services that support their staff in crisis, to the more proactive measures such as altering the internal culture through mental health awareness training, it could be argued that larger charities (with greater resources) are best placed to address such issues.

But, as 90% of our sector consists of small charities (under £1m income pa), the question remains; “How will they support their workforce where one quarter may have poor mental health?”

This has been on my mind in recent months, when I have been supporting and advising CEOs of small charities. What worries me is that so many Senior Managers of smaller charities appear drained and exhausted. Some feel they are running their charities without appropriate support, that they are line-managing too many direct reports, that their charities are under-resourced and are worrying endlessly about income and fundraising. They care so much and worry endlessly. Clearly, these stresses must affect their mental health. How could it not?

Some suggestions for the sector

Now I am not suggesting that I have the answers, but I would like to share some considerations that have been running through my mind:

  1. For funders, whether you are statutory authority or philanthropic foundation, consider awarding a proportion of your funding that will be devoted to the mental health of staff and volunteers.

  2. For Boards, consider what measures you are taking to proactively encourage your CEO to look after their mental health and that of their workforces?

  3. For Boards and Senior Management in charities, consider launching internal programmes to alter the culture, by encouraging everyone to be positive about mental health and guard against over-working and burn-out.

  4. For HR Departments, consider ensuring your policies embrace the importance of good mental health, including permitting days off when staff members or volunteers appear overly anxious or stressed.

  5. For charity workers, if you notice your colleague appears “off” or “not right”, consider asking them about it.

Demand for services of charities has never been greater. Let’s not allow mental health to be the elephant in the room in our wonderful sector. For the sake of our preschools, PTAs, social clubs, football teams and food banks, we need strong charities in our communities. Taking a proactive stance on mental health will help all our charities and permit them to continue the tremendous work their beneficiaries need.