Raising money for old people may not be sexy, but it is essential according to Leon Smith at Nightingale Hammerson, as Deborah Cicurel reports.
Do you buy the Big Issue, or run marathons for Cancer Research, or donate when an internet craze like the Ice Bucket Challenge comes around? However you give to charity, there is no doubt that you donate to causes close to your heart, whether those are children’s charities, homeless shelters or animal centres. But one area of charitable giving is suffering hugely: care homes for the elderly.
One man who knows this more than anyone is Leon Smith, 64, executive vice president of Nightingale Hammerson, a charity that supports both Nightingale House, a 170-year-old care home in south London, and Hammerson House in north London – and which urgently needs funds. “Raising money for old people is not easy,” Leon says bluntly.
“It’s not a sexy cause. People are moved more by giving money to cancer, children or community security. Old people are not glamorous or sexy, so it’s not something that turns people on, particularly young people. We have a fundamental image problem.”
As a 24-year-old myself, I can understand Leon’s point – most of the charity events I attend tend to be raising money for children. But while care homes may be not “sexy”, they are essential – we will all be old one day, and my generation would be lucky to be eventually cared for in quality homes such as Nightingale and Hammerson, which although do receive government money, are mostly supported by community help. “Our charity has a long history of generous supporters,” Leon says.
“Nightingale and Hammerson are only what they are today because of the generosity of the community. It’s something they should be very proud of.”
So why is money becoming harder to raise? Nightingale Hammerson needs funds for two reasons: running costs and capital projects. Leon explains that raising money for new buildings, for example, is easier, as people can see exactly where their money is going, and can name a room after a loved one, whereas people sometimes feel that money given for running costs goes into a big black hole. But both types of fundraising are essential and the amount being given is dwindling. “The money we receive from local authorities doesn’t come anywhere near the real costs of running the homes. We’re in deficit every year. It’s because of a number of difficulties,” Leon explains.
“The recession in 2008 hit people very badly. When people struggle, they have less disposable income. The first thing to go is luxury, and giving money to charity is a luxury. “We suffered because of that and it’s taken us a long time to get back to where we were. We do two direct mails a year and we write to our donor base, but the number of responses we’ve had has been reduced, and the monetary value has been reduced. People simply haven’t got as much money as they used to.”
Leon also highlights other problems: “Charitable legacy giving is down,” he says. “When I started 42 years ago it was a way of life to leave tzedakah in your will. It still happens, but less. People have to use money to pay for pensions or their own care. People are living longer. It’s just not reasonable to expect the government to cover the cost of every old person.”
Leon adds: “The average age of people at our homes is 90. Nightingale House has 15 people aged between 100 and 108, while at Hammerson it’s 13 between 100 and 109. When I started, if someone reached 100 it would be on the front page of the local paper, but now it’s so common that the Queen sends a telegram on your 100th birthday, but thereafter it’s only every five years!” And Leon admits that while they have young donors, it is harder to keep them interested.
“We’ve had younger committees that have done events but then they get married and have kids, so it’s hard to keep them engaged. One of the ways in which we do that is through marathon places and organising cycle rides – a lot of young people enjoy those sort of challenges.”
So what’s the best way to get younger people involved, I ask? “It’s to get them to see the homes. Most people’s perception of a home is dark, smelly, miserable, depressing. Our homes could not be more different – they’re uplifting, dynamic, friendly – and not smelly. That’s why we do whatever we can to entice people to our homes.”
Leon is clearly incredibly passionate about his job. “What has motivated me for more than 40 years are the people,” he says. “They’ve got amazing stories, they’ve all been through so much, they are fascinating. If I ever have a bad day, I talk to them for five minutes and I get re-motivated all over again.” With a laugh, he adds: “That’s not schmaltz, its the truth”, but continues: “Many people don’t understand how the funding regime works, but it’s really complicated. Quality care doesn’t come cheap. Quality Jewish care is even more expensive because of kosher kitchens, for example. If it’s going to continue, the community has to support the homes.”
“A private home gives a return to its investors,” Leon says. “Our raison d’être, on the other hand, is to care for older people. Charity donations help that immensely. We are currently fundraising for a major redevelopment. We need £10 million to continue this essential work.”
So how can you help? If you have children, take them to a care home to get them communicating with older people and understanding from a young age how vital funding is. If you’re running a marathon, think of the needs of the elderly. If you’re lucky enough to have charity to give this year, consider Nightingale Hammerson. Of course, all charities are important, but when deciding which cause to support, remember – we’ll all be old one day, and the funding you give today really will make an enormous difference for the future.