Benevolent funds – many created on a wave of 19th-century philanthropy to provide assistance to struggling “gentlefolk” or handouts to the starving and destitute of the parish – are reporting a surge in demand for help and hardship grants.
Over the last year, hardship charities in the UK gave out an estimated £216m in grants – up from £203m in 2016 – covering anything from cash handouts to food and clothes, fridges, beds, wheelchairs, psychological counselling, carer help and debt advice.
Over half a million people came to them for help in 2018-19. “These figures show the increasing levels of support needed by people with nowhere else to turn,” said Donal Watkin, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Organisations, which represents more than 120 benevolent charities.
The rise in demand, say the charities, is driven by collapsing living standards and static wages, and the pressures of precarious and stressful working lives, against a backdrop of cuts to the NHS, care services and welfare benefits.
The funds were set up originally by occupational groups – sailors, vicars, accountants, actors and musicians, engineers, for example – or by parishes in the years before state pensions and social security to provide charitable assistance to members or local residents who faced destitution.
Although they fell into decline after the creation of the welfare state, many funds have now rebranded and modernised in response to new demand: the Society for the Assistance of Ladies in Reduced Circumstances, for example, has become the Smallwood Trust; the Distressed Gentlefolks’ Aid Association has become Turn2Us.
Surviving on endowments and in some cases topped up by donations and fundraising, the benevolent funds are tiny compared with the mighty billions of the welfare state, but they act as a tracker both of wider societal trends and the receding frontiers of state-provided social security.
In recent years they have experienced a switch in demand from end-of-life assistance to help for younger working-age beneficiaries, often in decent jobs but with few savings who find that a single adverse event – illness, unemployment – can trigger a spiralling crisis, one compounded if the state safety net is inadequate.
Kris Barnett, chief executive of the Institution of Civil Engineers Benevolent Fund, said: “When I started here [in 2003], most of the applications were from widows and older people. Now 70% of our beneficiaries are people of working age who are struggling with modern life.”
Last year the fund gave a 176% increase in grants – financial assistance or courses of therapy – to beneficiaries affected by mental illness, reflecting the more stressful working lives of its members in the construction industry, as well as increasingly slow or inadequate NHS provision.
The Charity for Civil Servants stepped in on several occasions where current and former civil servants with chronic disease or disability had been denied home adaptation grants by local councils, coming to the rescue with grants of more than £10,000.
“If the local authority says a person isn’t eligible for help, and a grant from us is the only way that person can have a normal quality of life, why wouldn’t we do it?” said Flavia Gapper, director of help and advice at the Charity for Civil Servants.
Glasspool Charity Trust, a general poverty fund that spent nearly £1.7m last year on grants for basic household appliances such as washing machines, cookers and beds, says homelessness, domestic violence, mental illness, in-work poverty and debt caused by long waits for universal credit are among the key drivers of demand.
Demand surged after the coalition scrapped the social fund in 2013 in favour of local welfare provision, which subsequently collapsed in many parts of England. In these “welfare deserts” cash-strapped councils rely increasingly on charities such as Glasspool, as well as food banks and faith groups, to help poor people in crisis.
Glasspool’s chief executive, Julie Green, warned that it would not be able to provide unlimited help for the increasing numbers of people who could no longer rely on the state for help: “We don’t want to replicate state funding, but the goalposts of what constitutes state funding have moved.”
Damon Gibbons, director of the Centre for Responsible Credit, said rising demand for general hardship funds reflected the growth of destitution and extreme poverty. “These charities have always existed to cover for the holes in the safety net but the holes have got bigger and they are struggling to fill the gap.”
‘I was reminded people do care’
Emily Beardall, 44, had just qualified with a degree in pharmacy when she was diagnosed with myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME). “I couldn’t work. It was difficult financial and emotionally.”
She faced a long wait for NHS specialist treatment and found it harder and harder to make ends meet. She skimped on food, and cut back on basics. It was difficult to access disability benefits. “When you are ill you don’t have the energy to fight for things.”
After two years she found out about Pharmacist Support, a charity set up to provide help for current and former pharmacists and their families in their hour of need. “I was lucky,” says Beardall, “they scooped me up.”
The charity gave her a cash grant to tide her over while it arranged for an adviser to sort out her benefits – she was initially refused disability benefits, although at the time she “could barely feed herself” – and for help towards the cost of a mobility scooter.
She is now coming off unemployment benefit and taking a return-to-work course, an upturn in her life for which she credits Pharmacist Support. “It felt like I had been picked up and carried out of a horrible situation. I was reminded people do care.”