Interview — Hugh Valentine
We asked Hugh Valentine, the director of the Walcot Foundation, about its work and mission
What is the Walcot Foundation, and what distinguishes it from other charities?
The foundation belongs to that sub-group of charities that have a ‘permanent endowment’, and so is very fortunate. This means it has assets that cannot be spent, used only to generate income. Walcot’s permanent endowment is well over £100 million, in property and other investments. These generate our income and fund our work.
Walcot is fortunate in another way: for its financial size it has a fairly small ‘area of benefit’ – Lambeth. This allows us to have a greater impact than if we covered all of London or the UK. Our charitable purpose is ‘the relief of poverty’. We do this by making grants that have the aim of improving the whole-life earning prospects of our target group (low-income Lambeth citizens, mainly under 30).
How did Walcot come about?
In his Will of 1667 Edmund Walcot left land, the rents from which were to be used for the relief of the local poor. Our records in fact go back further – to Sir Noel Caron’s Almshouses, and 1618.
Is poverty still an issue?
Yes. It remains a serious reality in the UK. 2019/20 data indicates that 14.5 million UK citizens were living in poverty (the figure includes 4.3 million children, 8.1 million working-age adults and 2.1 million pensioners). In Lambeth, 43% of children live in poverty (after housing costs) and 30% of the general population. It is very likely that the pandemic has caused these figures to rise.
The Westminster government’s Welfare Reform and Work Act 2016 removed the requirement in the Child Poverty Act 2010 to publish a UK-wide child poverty strategy. This was a mistake. It leaves the Government without a clear focus on tackling child poverty. The impact of material poverty on children can have serious, life-long consequences. These affect not only the person, but society more widely.
I am an admirer of Dorothy Day, an American journalist, activist, Christian, and anarchist of sorts (1897-1980) who insisted that “We must talk about poverty because people insulated by their own comfort lose sight of it”. It's true: many of us are insulated from this situation, and seem ready to tolerate it. It’s terrible indifference.
Does the Foundation’s work have an impact?
If you aim for whole-life change (as we do) then measuring impact is tricky. This is what we want our grantmaking to do for grantees: create opportunities they otherwise don’t get, and in doing so to give a hand up and never a hand-out. So we are willing to consider funding almost anything which holds the possibility of whole-life employability in decently paid work.
The formula for helping people out of cycles of low-income poverty has, traditionally, been to get them into work. That is still our approach, but several years ago the number of technically 'poor' people in work exceeded those not in work. All because of low wages, the gig economy and zero-hours contracts. It is not wise for society to tolerate these developments. Minimum wage legislation must reflect living wage levels.
Does Walcot campaign?
No, not as a primary purpose. Good think tanks and campaigning groups exist. It is not our role. We make information available, we ‘bear witness’ to what our work reveals about the human cost of modern-day poverty, and we make submissions from time-to-time to the government (a recent example was to the House of Commons Work and Pensions Committee inquiry into measuring child poverty).
Does the Foundation have a USP?
Well, luckily, we don’t have to ‘sell’ ourselves. And what I am about to say is not unique to Walcot, though we have majored on it. The world of ‘charity’ is not always benign and cuddly. Sometimes there can be elements of condescension and unhelpful (and often unconscious) attitudes. Grant makers – if they are alert to these possibilities – recognize the power imbalance at work (they decide, applicants can only ask). We try to address this. We view grantees as partners, not as ‘recipients of charity’. Without them and their potential, we cannot achieve our aim. We are as clear as we can be about what we might fund and the information we need to decide this. We don’t forget that the individuals we exist to help often have reason to feel forgotten by wider society. This is why we aim to give a ‘hand-up’, not a ‘hand-out’, offering them opportunities they may have been denied, building on their strengths and seeking to grow their confidence.
Who are the people who make Walcot work?
Those with ultimate responsibility are our charity trustees — here they are called Governors. Their job, under charity law, is to ensure the Foundation stays focused on its purpose, is properly run, and that the assets are managed in such a way as to be available not just to today’s grantees but also those of tomorrow – forever, in perpetuity. We have a staff team dealing with grants, property, and finance.
You are leaving Walcot in 2022
Yes, at the end of April. I don’t like the ‘R’ word and prefer to call it post-work liberation. It has been a truly brilliant role to have. I’ve loved it. I have been fortunate to have worked with a range of impressively competent and committed Governors and colleagues, and to see Walcot’s grantmaking do exactly what we hope for: to break cycles of deprivation by giving to those who are denied them by their circumstances the opportunities others take for granted.
What do you think Edmund Walcot would make of his charity today?
He'd be shocked that poverty has endured and is tolerated in modern-day Britain. I think he would be astonished by the breadth of work being done in his name, 354 years later.