Monday interview: Stephen Bell, chief executive of Tyneside-based charity Changing Lives

Changing Lives boss Stephen Bell explains how he runs his organisation along business lines to help those most in need

Stephen Bell, chief executive of Changing Lives
Stephen Bell, chief executive of Changing Lives

Stephen Bell has been employed by two organisations in his entire working life and cheerfully admits that he has always lived in one square mile of the North East town where he grew up.

If that makes him sound unlike your typical business leader, consider some of the statistics he can marshall to counter that argument.

His time at Changing Lives – the charity formerly known as the Cyrenians – has seen its staffing grow from 45 to 385 and its annual turnover from £700,000 to £15m.

Where it used to operate solely on Tyneside, it now has contracts in other parts of the North East, the Midlands, the North West, and Yorkshire.

It has widened its remit too from being an organisation that existed solely to help homeless men to become one that takes on work in areas around addiction, domestic violence, unemployment and mental health. 20% of the people it now works with are under 18, more than 60% are women.

Stephen recently celebrated 20 years at the organisation – along with a number of long-term colleagues – more than half of which has been as chief executive.

And although the charity’s raison d’etre is to help those in society who are most in need, Stephen insists that its success is at least in part due to the fact that it is run along business lines.

“The success of the organisation is built on the private sector mentality of a balance sheet,” he says.

“Our balance sheet this year will have over £10m of fixed assets and we’ve got about £3m in liabilities, so we’ve still got £7m in cleared assets, which most voluntary sector organisations haven’t got. To get to that stage we’ve deliberately built up a property portfolio.

“There are some phenomenal third sector organisations out there and charities that do some amazing work, but most voluntary sectors run day-to-day and we’ve taken a commercial decision that we want to look long-term. I’ve just signed off a five-year strategic plan that’s about growing the business up to £25m but it’s growing the business on the back of a balance sheet.”

The decision to run Changing Lives on commercial lines may spring in part from Stephen’s first job, leaving school at the age of 16 to work for the transport company Northern Group (later Go Ahead Northern), where he covered a range of accounting and pension roles.

“I worked there 12 years and covered most of the back office functions and got a really good grounding without ever realising it,” he says. “I got made redundant on a Friday and I started work here on the Monday. I wasn’t interviewed until the Wednesday – it was the good old days before HR came in!”

Being unemployed for a grand total of two days did not seem to hamper Stephen’s career. When he started work at the Tyneside Cyrenians’ office on Newcastle’s Stowell Street, he initially could not see the job lasting long.

“I never thought I would stop,” he says. “We didn’t have any computers, we didn’t have anything.

“But you gradually fall in love with the place really. Once you realise that the work you do can have a real difference to people’s lives it has a fundamental impact on you.” That sense of a mission runs through everything Stephen says about the organisation he leads.

The Cyrenians was formed in 1970 by a group of clergymen and social services professionals concerned about the lack of facilities for people sleeping rough in Newcastle.

The organisation came close to extinction in the 1980s but it not only survived but started to grow.

As it expanded both the range of projects it became involved in and the geographical areas in which it worked (but where other organisations with the Cyrenians name also existed), a decision was made to re-brand the charity as Changing Lives.

“It was a conscious decision to grow,” Stephen says. “What’s happened recently is that all of the contracts we had for commissioned services and all of the grants have reduced by 20%. They will reduce further and this has always happened.

“I’ve always been a big believer that if you didn’t get schemes around those and have different forms of funding, then the people who use our services really struggle.

“Whether the schemes are funded out of a health budget, out of a police and crime commissioner’s budget, out of a social justice budget, or a housing budget, they’re the same people, they’ve just got different needs.

“So we diversified. We’re not reliant on any one form of funding, so within the organisation we’re in a very strong position.”

Changing Lives now operates projects that help with employment needs, physical and mental health issues, women’s centres, and both men and women fleeing domestic violence.

It also works to bring redundant properties on Tyneside back to life, a project that provides both housing and work for Changing Lives’ clients.

“The whole scheme is about regenerating properties that have been there as a blight.

“It’s giving people a job, so the property services company that does this will be staffed half by professionals and half by people who have come through our services to give them a job.

“It’s also generating an income for us. If we get to 500 houses it will generate £2.5m income and that gives us a solid financial base which we don’t have to compete for. It’s ours.

“We’re trying to deliver this model alongside the traditional charity. That’s what we’re moving towards.”

Such strong foundations will be very much in need in Changing Lives’ short term future. The charity currently supports around 14,000 people a year but that number has been rising rapidly after the financial crash and the austerity policies of the last five years.

Seeing the human impact of austerity at first hand has left Stephen not just determined to help, but clearly angry.

“When I grew up we didn’t have lots of money but I had loving parents, I played a lot of sport and my dream was to be a cricketer,” he says.

“A lot of the children we work with, their dream is to not see their mam suffer domestic violence, to not see their dad drink themselves to death, not see their parents inject themselves with heroin. The dreams of these children are very different. A lot of people are born into a life cycle which is difficult to break away from and our role is to try and break those cycles.

“But you can break those cycles, 100% you can. One in four of our staff are people who have used our services and we’ve done that deliberately. It’s something I’m really proud of.

“They’re fantastic workers who’ve been there and done it but come out the other end. We’ve got to believe in those people.

“We work with a lot of private sector companies to get people into work and I always say that if we didn’t do it ourselves, we couldn’t knock on someone’s door and ask them to do it. The whole thing is about changing mentality, about employing people so the cycle can be broken.

“For the people we work with, at the minute it’s really tough. People talk about welfare cuts but when you’re living on £64 a week, it’s not a luxury lifestyle.

“There are people we work with who have got the choice at the minute of whether to heat or eat. This is not trying to play any political rhetoric but that’s what’s currently happening.

“A lot of our frontline workers, their jobs have currently changed, and they’re dealing with benefit sanctions, so they’re constantly on the phone to the Jobcentre trying to stop people being sanctioned.

“But in some ways the people who are with us are lucky because they’ve got somebody doing that. Others haven’t got that.

“To stop somebody’s benefits for up to two years, I think that’s wrong. There’s been a huge rise in food banks but at food banks you get three chitties and what happens when those chitties run out? I don’t think anyone’s answering these questions. But it’s going to get harder going forward.”

As life gets harder for their clients and for Changing Lives, Stephen credits the charity’s staff for managing its vastly changing role.

He says: “You bring people in at different times in your development as an organisation. My role is to make sure that our frontline staff are looked after. If we look after them, they look after the service users.

“At times I’ve been very hands-on. There were times I did all the PR, all the HR, all the health and safety, everything. People say we’ve got loads of staff but we didn’t used to.

“But it was a big shift for me from working with our service users to working with the staff. Within that change, and we’ve had a lot of change over the years, you need to bring people through with you. You also need to bring the right calibre of staff in at the right time to help that development.

“Some of our work is really difficult. I could not do what some of my frontline workers do. What they do is phenomenal. They’re the heartbeat of the organisation.

“I talk about our balance sheet and our fixed assets and we’ve got a good balance sheet, but our greatest asset is our staff.”

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