Contact the Elderly CEO Meryl Davies tells David Adams about only recently learning of the charity and how organisations can achieve a great deal by using simple methods.
Some of the organisations featured in Charity Times do truly extraordinary things: funding medical breakthroughs, helping people in desperate situations in the UK and elsewhere, or creating new infrastructure to help give young people a chance of a better future, for example.
But there are also charities that achieve a great deal by using much simpler methods. One of said charities is Contact the Elderly, an organisation that helps isolated older people to meet regularly and make new friends, through its network of volunteers who host monthly tea parties for older people on Sundays. By doing so it makes a positive difference to the lives of thousands of people.
Although it does not have a particularly high profile, anyone who has been involved with the charity will probably have warm feelings towards it. I know I do: my parents hosted meetings for the charity in the 1970s and 1980s – and my mother is now doing so once more, 40 years on. Anyone with friends or relatives who have benefitted directly from its work will feel very grateful. But if you have never heard of the charity, don’t feel too bad about it, because you are in good company – until just a few months ago, its new CEO, Meryl Davies, didn’t know about it either.
A wealth of experience
Davies can be forgiven for this, because although she has extensive experience of working in this sector, the organisations for which she has worked focused on quite different beneficiaries. From 2003 to 2010, she worked in a fundraising role for Lucy Cavendish College at the University of Cambridge: a college that only admits mature students or postgraduates. As head of development, Davies launched major gifts and legacy programmes. She says working with the college brought home to her the idea that it is always possible to do new things in life, making new friendships and taking advantage of new opportunities.
She then worked as director of fundraising for SOS Children’s Villages UK, part of a network of charities that helps unsupported children in 125 countries around the world, later becoming its global partnerships manager. In late 2013 she took up a new role as UK National Director of another global NGO, Right to Play, which helps children affected by poverty, disease and war to access and stay in education.
Davies was also working towards a MSc in NGO Management at the Cass Business School. With this qualification under her belt, in November 2015 she was appointed CEO of the housing charity Habitat for Humanity Great Britain, remaining in post until April 2018, helping people in many different countries around the world who live in slums or substandard housing. She is very proud of the work she did there, helping to build a diverse leadership team from which her deputy was promoted to replace her.
But during this period, Davies and her family moved from Cambridge to South London, into a multicultural environment she says they all love. She began to wish she was working for an organisation that made more of an impact in the UK, so that it was easier to see the benefit of its work first-hand.
Captivated by simplicity
She candidly admits she knew very little about Contact the Elderly before she had the opportunity to apply to become its chief executive. But she was immediately captivated by the simplicity and effectiveness of its work.
The organisation was founded in 1965 by Trevor Lyttleton MBE, who had discovered there were a large number of isolated elderly people living in London and wanted to bring them together. He has said that he received a Christmas card from an elderly lady who had become a member of one of the first groups saying: ‘At last I have something to live for!’
The charity now runs more than 800 groups across the UK. About 11,000 volunteers work with them, hosting the monthly meetings for more than 6,000 older people, with some volunteers also driving the older people from their homes to and from the venue. Most of the older people who attend the tea parties are aged between 80 and 100; and some have mobility issues, or hearing or visual impairments that make it difficult for them to leave their homes without assistance, increasing their isolation.
Drivers are encouraged to transport the same people to each meeting. “That’s a critical relationship,” says Davies. “So you know who’s picking you up. The driver will take you to the gathering and then you can make new connections and friends there.” The groups are deliberately kept fairly small, to help people make friends as they see the same people at each event.
Contact the Elderly has been affected by many of the same issues that have created problems for all charities in recent years, around funding, for example, but Davies says that slow but steady growth has continued during the past ten years, despite difficult financial conditions.
“The organisation has continued to diversify its funding sources, without over-diversifying,” she says. “As a small organisation you have to be fairly focused. You can’t have all the fundraising streams going when you’ve only got a small fundraising staff.” It also benefitted from a boost to its finances and volunteer numbers during its 50th anniversary year in 2015; and from an appearance on the Channel 5 TV show Do the Right Thing in March 2018.
Although in some ways this is an organisation that faces a lighter regulatory burden than some charities, the fact that its volunteers work with very vulnerable people means that some issues, such as the need to ensure all possible safeguarding measures have been taken in relation to volunteers, are at the heart of its processes.
The charity also works very closely with other organisations that aim to help reduce social and health problems related to loneliness and isolation, including The Silver Line, the Campaign To End Loneliness; and the Jo Cox Foundation. Davies hopes these partnerships will help the organisation to broaden its reach and create referral networks, so that it can help more isolated people, in every community.
She says she is also hugely impressed by the charity’s small but diverse team. Loneliness is a much-discussed topic at present and Davies thinks this is a crucial moment for organisations working to reduce it, because the charities minister Tracey Crouch has also been named as the minister for loneliness. Contact the Elderly is working with the Loneliness Action Group (led by the Co-op and the Red Cross) to advise the minister on these issues.
Outside the organisation, Davies believes she will gain a valuable extra perspective from her role as a trustee of another charity, Young Minds, which aims to improve mental health among young people. Having joined the trustee board there in January, one of her first duties was to help recruit a new CEO for Young Minds, Emma Thomas, who takes up the role in July. Davies says she is looking forward to being able to work with another new CEO as she continues to settle into her own role.
Her professional and home life in London now feel a long way from her childhood in rural Shropshire – although she points out that she was then part of a multigenerational household, with her grandfather living in the family home. “I certainly didn’t think then that one day I’d be sitting in central London running a charity for older people – but I’m very glad I am,” she says.
She believes part of the reason Contact the Elderly has been so successful is that its work is, in a way, relevant to everyone. We all hope we will be fortunate enough to grow old; all of us know or have known older people whose lives we would want to be as enjoyable as possible.
“We’ve all got an old person that we’ve cared about and we wouldn’t want them to be isolated,” says Davies. “That’s the power of this organisation: it’s fantastically simple and fantastically important. We just want to make sure we can take what we do to as many people as possible.”