Interview: Cares and shares
Stephen Tomkins talks to the chief executives of Oikocredit and Carers UK, two organisations celebrating major anniversaries
Monica Middleton is UK director of the social investment company Oikocredit, which turns 40 this year. Founded by the World Council of Churches, Oikocredit puts investors’ money to work with an eye both to financial return and the transformation of communities in the developing world. It has disbursed €2.1bn of development financing in that time – over half of it in the last five years. Last year, 28 million people were reached by its partners.
Why do people invest their money in Oikocredit?
We have 53,000 worldwide investors; 6,000 are organisations, 47,000 are individuals. Of the organisations, 90% are churches or charities, and that’s thanks to our heritage and our origins: Oikocredit was set up by the World Council of Churches in 1975.
During the 1970s there was a lot of political upheaval around the world – the Vietnam War, apartheid – and churches got together and said: “We don’t want to invest our money in retail banks, because it invariably goes to fund non-peacekeeping missions. We want another way to invest our money.” It took seven years, because it was a complex pioneering process, setting up what was essentially one of the first social investment organisations. They used Oikocredit mainly to fulfil their social aims, which were primarily to reduce poverty in the developing world.
Some of the biggest voices around the world in this field are churches. We have 600 member organisations, who are like shareholders, and they are almost exclusively church organisations.
What makes Oikocredit different from other social investment organisations?
We’ve been around a lot longer than most, and we are exclusively focused on reducing poverty in the developing world, reaching the most disadvantaged communities who don’t have access to money, and getting them money. A lot of social investment organisations in this country pipe their money into UK causes; with Oikocredit investors know we’re one of the few in this country that pipe their investment into the developing world.
The second thing is that it’s all very simple: There’s effectively no minimum investment, no notice period, no charges, and there has historically been a very steady return on investment over the last 20 years or so.
How has Oikocredit changed in the last 40 years?
The organisation changed very little until about 10 years ago. Our roots are Dutch, and the Netherlands led the way in social investment. The sector was championed by the Queen of the Netherlands who lobbied the government to reduce the regulations and offer tax benefits. The market opened up for us, enabling us to reach more and more remote communities. When the mainstream started coming in to help disadvantaged people in urban settings, we released that area and went further into the mountains and into different sectors – agriculture, fair trade and now renewable energy – always with social mission as the primary objective.
In the last five years, we’ve diversified into more and more business sectors to reach ever more remote people – particularly women. They make up 70% of our end beneficiaries, because they are often the most financially excluded…
Heléna Herklots is chief executive of Carers UK, the UK̕s only national membership charity for carers, which is 50 years old this year. It was founded by the Congregational minister, Mary Webster, who discovered how difficult life was for carers and what little support there was, after she gave up work to look after her parents. Last year, Carers UK provided specialist information to 739,000 people through their website and offered support to the 21,000 people who used their advice line (0808 808 7777). The charity runs Carers Week, an annual awareness campaign of 5,000 events.
Can you tell us about your founder, Mary Webster?
Mary was single, with a married sister, and there was an expectation at that time that single daughters would be the ones to look after their elderly parents. So she had to give up her work as a minister, move back to Eltham where her parents lived, and devote a lot of time to looking after them. She found that the rest of her life shrank away and her opportunity to be out and about dwindled.
Thinking that there might be other women in similar situations, she started writing to the national press, and was inundated with letters from women who identified with her story. She coined a phrase which powerfully encapsulated their experience: “Under house arrest”. There wasn’t any state support or recognition of their work. From those beginnings, she started the carers movement. She was very good at making public this issue that was in the shadows, through the press, through networking, through MPs.
She founded the charity at an inaugural meeting in the House of Commons on 18 November 1965. It was called the National Council of the Single Woman and her Dependents – now Carers UK, which is thankfully a bit snappier! Then, there were 300,000 women in that situation in the UK; today, there are 6.5 million carers, men and women of all ages. She was a remarkable woman with a very strong faith, and used that commitment and passion in the work she did to help others in the same situation as she found herself in, providing support and recognition for carers and lobbying government to improve the influence and rights of carers.
She died very young, of cancer, just four years later in 1969. She was only 46, but left a huge legacy.
What did the organisation do to support carers?
It started by providing information and encouraging people to come together locally. That’s something we’ve continued to do. There’s nothing like talking to someone who’s had the same experience so it’s a movement of carers, not just for carers. Mary made it a membership organisation, so now we have 21,300 carers who are members and our board of trustees is primarily elected from them. Mary gave us a governance structure that has carers at its heart.
How has it developed over the years, the kind of support that you give?
The essence of what we’re trying to do is the same, but the world has moved on, so we now have a national advice line for carers, the only one in the UK, providing expert advice on claiming the right benefits, getting a carers’ assessment, your rights as a carer and providing emotional support as well. More recently we’ve started an online forum, where carers can communicate with each other 24/7, giving each other tips and a safe place to share honestly. Even if the only time you have free is 10.30 at night, the chances are you’ll find someone else on the forum. Our volunteers help to develop awareness locally and nationally, through things like the national carers week in June. This year we had great support from the media, so we reached thousands of people who might not have identified themselves as carers before…
This is an extract from the September 2015 edition of Reform.