Charity leaders are painted in the hues of benevolence, gentleness, and above all empathy. However, much like leaders in any other domain, we confront challenges that often necessitate hard choices. One such challenge, and the choice I made some years ago, still leaves me pondering.
Our charity hosted a youth club for deaf young people. It had been running happily and successfully for years, but over time as some members grew into adulthood and moved on, the gaps weren't filled, which led to a slow but persistent decline in numbers. The club continued to provide a bi-weekly escape for a small, tightly knit group of a handful of regular members. For more than a decade, the club had been led by a loyal and dedicated team of three or four volunteers, who were always ready to adapt events that better suited the kids as they got older. But sadly, for all club's positive benefits, from a fiscal standpoint, this particular activity provided by the charity faced a looming impasse.
The problem was that with each passing year of submitting grant applications to help finance the club, we faced the same set of questions from potential funders. How was the charity achieving its objectives through our deaf youth club? What evidence could we provide of the club's success? Could we say how much membership would grow during the lifetime of the grant? What tangible change did the funding bring? As I penned down application after application, I found myself narrating the same old anecdotes. A growing sense of unease crept up on me: yes, clearly the young people who came loved getting together as they had always done, and the volunteers enjoyed it too. But by any rational measure, the club itself was stagnating.
Our volunteers, the very pulse of this initiative, were naturally fiercely protective of their space. Their unwavering dedication to the deaf young people was palpable, and the affection was mutual. Their singular desire was seamless funding, and if that wasn't forthcoming, it had to be that the system was wrong, or that the office wasn't working hard enough. They were right about the first, and wrong about the second. Nothing could stop the slow opening of a chasm between their perception and self belief, and the harsh reality facing the charity when it came to financing it.
Despite its successes, the club wasn’t growing. Renewed efforts to promote it notwithstanding, the membership continued to plateau and the service continued to be a drain on the charity's already limited resources. By this stage, many of the existing members were also in their last year of school.
The charity's problem was complex. Funders by and large want to support services that promote inclusivity, because that appears to be in keeping with today's societal values. But it doesn't always work for individuals for whom communication is the barrier between themselves and a mainstream society; society is sometimes lacking in both understanding and empathy. 'The office', as the club volunteers referred to our charity staff team using this somewhat derogatory term, was actually completely on side with much of the volunteers' thinking, that often deaf young people need escape into a safe and sympathetic environment. Their perspective resonated with me personally; it reflects why there is a deaf community in the first place, and why deaf individuals have always sought each other out. Often, the societal notion of inclusion feels more like a concession to the hearing majority rather than genuine integration.
But a glaring reality also confronted us—the club wasn’t appealing to new members. The county as a whole had a more substantial deaf youth population than our club’s numbers indicated. Why weren't more of them joining? One of the biggest challenges we faced was the local education authority’s advocacy for mainstreaming, which inadvertently led to a sidelining of our charitable objectives as 'too deaf' and out of step with today's thinking. The message of hearing professionals to hearing parents of deaf children has long been to promote their child's integration.
So a decade ago, I was faced with a heart-wrenching choice. Despite my utmost efforts to involve every stakeholder, to pivot and reposition the club, the harsh reality was that the financial support was fast drying up.
The repercussions of closing the club were personally difficult. Both the young people and their families, along with the volunteers, felt a profound sense of betrayal, feeling the charity had abandoned them. The fact that I had shared with them every step towards our decision, seeking like them for any other way forward, made no odds. In the end, much as we all love to think that charity can survive on air and goodwill alone, when funding for a service disappears, I had to be honest that you can only kid yourselves for so long about sustainability.
As it happens, despite the dire warnings when the club closed, it wasn't quite the catastrophe people said it would be. The friendships between the young people continued, just outside of the formal setting of a club, and both our staff and volunteers encouraged individuals to join some of our adult events as well. The charity continued to be there for them, providing communication support as one by one they embarked on their next phase in life at college or seeking employment.
Reflecting upon the decision I made, it was undeniably the right one at the time. But it's also important to recognise that charities always work in a shifting landscape and any decisions you make are rarely forever ones. And as societal perceptions shift, new doors open. Today, with a more enlightened perspective on deafness, there's hope and potential for the revival of local deaf youth clubs. The evolving understanding of hearing parents towards sign language and deaf culture presents an opportunity, a silver lining, signalling progress. More are now on board with the thinking that deaf people need other deaf people.
Steering a charity is far from a gentle stroll; it's a winding journey filled with tough calls. From this particular ordeal, I learnt a valuable lesson: the importance of doing my homework to see a problem from every angle, because leadership does on occasion require you to follow your head rather than your heart. In the face of controversy, I took at least some comfort from knowing that my decision was well informed. Making difficult decisions is never easy, but ensuring they are rooted in thorough understanding at least helps you sleep at night.
Jenny Hopkins is the founder of The Boiling Frog. Having spent the earlier part of her career in publishing, she switched to the charity sector and became CEO of a local deaf charity. Over a period of ten years, she is credited with transforming it into an award-winning organisation and trusted partner of local health and social care statutory bodies. She has since stepped back from that role to embark on a PhD about the impact of marketisation on deaf charities, alongside mentoring other CEOs of small charities. She uses The Boiling Frog blog as a way to reflect and challenge her own experience and perceptions about the role of charities in society today. She also volunteers as a trustee for two charities.