Difficult decisions and trying your best

CLIC Sargent Chief Executive Kate Lee writes about the recent proposal to close the Charity's holiday home - Malcolm Sargent House in Prestwick, Scotland.

So I read recently that good charity CEOs would wind-up a service if they didn’t feel it created the best possible impact for their beneficiaries… but really, it is never that simple. 

On Monday 6 June, CLIC Sargent announced that we need to have a serious conversation about the future of our amazing holiday home in Prestwick in Scotland, Malcom Sargent House. I say amazing, because it is. There is no denying it. Families that have been supported there over its long history have been helped to create special memories and some precious breathing space, restore their mental health and even their sanity. I have visited the place myself, it is a haven for peace, tranquillity, fun and craziness. 

I spend time visiting many of our services around the UK, and have seen incredibly powerful services that deal with the appalling problems cancer causes for children and young people with cancer - and their families. For example, we did some research a while ago that showed even back in 2011 parents were spending an extra £367 every month from the day their child is diagnosed. As a result two in three parents were going into debt to ensure they could meet their child’s basic needs like travelling to hospital for chemo or putting on the heating. These costs will only have risen over the past five years.

So, here is the rub... our fundraised income in 2015/16 was down and demand on our core services increased. This has left us with an operating deficit for the year. Whilst this shouldn’t be a problem; some years you win - some years you lose, CLIC Sargent believes that our donated money should be spent on children and young people with cancer and not sat in the bank as a big pot of cash reserves. We have spent our money on the buildings for our Homes from Home, such as the new Glasgow one and the future Edinburgh one, and put our ‘savings’ to work for us delivering services we know make a massive difference. But these are tough times for charities and we are operating in a difficult financial environment.

Last year the number of children and young people we supported was up by 5% on the year before, to over 7,000, and the length of time we spend with each family has also increased, and yet we are still only reaching two out of three children and young people across the UK. About 500 young people diagnosed with cancer each year receive no help from us at all – which is totally unacceptable and my biggest challenge.

I have looked in depth, with my team, over the recent months on how to square this circle. Our first priority is always children and young people with cancer, and they need a financially resilient and strong organisation that has ‘got their backs’ from the point of diagnosis on. This means growing core, frontline services. I need to plug our financial gap and make the cash reserves a little stronger so that we remain a strong sustainable charity, not so easily buffeted by income ups and downs. And I need to significantly grow our core services to reach all those in desperate need of support. 

The holiday home has stood out as an obvious challenge. It costs over half a million pounds a year to run but delivers services to only about 5% of our children and young people. We know from the work we did on our recent strategy that this 5% of our users each year deeply value it. But the same research shows us that basics such as financial support, helping keep your child in education through their treatment, dealing with difficult employers and landlords – all stuff that is at the core of CLIC Sargent’s work - continue to be immediate pressures on family life. We provide an essential safety net for those families often lost, frightened and panicking right from the day the doctor says; ‘it’s cancer’. And yes... maybe the government should do this… but they don’t.

It is, in large, a financial issue. Most charities, not just ours, have taken a hammering from negative media publicity which is affecting income. But it is also a case of being focussed on spending what funds we have as wisely as possible and for me that has got to be reaching three out of three young cancer patients and families, in every single part of the UK with the core, frontline services to keep them going through a child’s cancer diagnosis and treatment.   

I am desperately sad about the potential impact on our staff and volunteers of this proposal, and yes I understand that this has been a massive shock to the local community – who probably feel let down. But you know what… despite that I can live with myself. I could not live with myself if I felt I had not started a very tough conversation to make sure that we are there, secure, into the future for children and young people with cancer. We have had some absolutely brilliant questions via our contactus@clicsargent.org.uk email - keep them coming. We have spent the morning in our exec team thinking about some of the great suggestions for the home’s future, such as handing it over to another provider. I am genuinely up for discussing this, listening to the views and arguments. I admire every single person that cares enough about this to sign a petition and rally views and support. We didn’t go into this lightly - and the decision either way will be a tough one, because I won’t rest until we reach three out of three so something is going to have to give. I know everyone involved, the local community, the staff, volunteers, the Directors, are trying their best for the people who matter most… children and young people with cancer, it deserves a proper debate.

Take part in our live Q&A with Kate Lee

Kate Lee will be taking part in a live Facebook question and answer session on the CLIC Sargent Facebook page, on Wednesday 15 June between 7pm and 8pm. If you're unable to attend, but would like to submit a question to Kate in advance, please email: contactus@clicsargent.org.uk.