I wear two hats when I write this blog of mine. First and foremost, I manage a small charity in a small Scottish town called Dumfries. Ours is a front door that opens onto the darker corners of the crumbling world that is Britain 2015. We hand out 5000 emergency food parcels a year in a town that is home to 50,000 souls. Then, as you can see from all of the book covers above, I am also a thriller writer. If you enjoy the blog, you might just enjoy the books. The link below takes you to the whole library in the Kindle store. They can be had for a couple of quid each.

Monday, March 16, 2015


Maybe this blog is a nuts and bolts view of how the twenty first century Voluntary Sector goes about running its railroad. Or maybe it’s just me getting a few things off my chest on a grey Monday morning in March. Regular readers will be well aware that I tend to be a pretty staunch defender of the Voluntary Sector and what it achieves. I am well and truly biased of course having been a charity manager for the last twelve years. But I am also very sure of my ground. God alone knows what would have happened over the last few years if charities had not been there to feed, heat and clothe all of the millions who have been ground into the floor by the Welfare Reforms. The inescapable truth is that people with no money cannot buy anything to eat, and if people don’t eat anything, well, they basically starve. Our government has made the choice to deprive millions of our fellow citizens of every penny of their income and thereby leave them vulnerable to extreme hunger. The Voluntary Sector has stepped up to the plate and taken on the role of being the food cupboard of last resort. If the Voluntary Sector hadn’t have been there to put food on the table, would the Government have been willing to sit back and see people starve to death in Britain 2015? I like to think they wouldn’t, but who knows?
Over the last few years of austerity driven hunger, the efforts of charities up and down the land to feed those who have no means to eat has been Herculean. The Voluntary Sector has won plenty of Brownie points and by and large it has deserved every single one of them.
But that doesn’t means that the Voluntary Sector is remotely perfect.
It ain’t.
Over the last thirty years or so we have seen hundreds of thousands of much loved family run shops driven out of businesses by brutally dominant supermarkets. We haven’t liked it, but it has been presented as a fact of life. The savage reality of Darwinian capitalism. Familiar ground.
Much less familiar has been the rise of charities who mimic the way the great corporations go about their business. Most of the familiar brand names of ‘Big Charity’ now bear more than a passing resemblance to the companies of the Footsie 100. They work out of expensive offices with prime London postcodes and their Chief Executives earn six figure salaries and command the kind of pension packages that bankers aspire to.
These super-charities spend big bucks on advertising to put their brands in the eye line of the public and they send reps door to door to sweet talk punters into monthly direct debits.
How has this happened? Well when you live in a capitalist system, all aspects of life tend to gravitate towards the hard law of the jungle. In a nutshell, every man and his dog chases the money. The last Government made all kinds of promises about easing poverty and making life better for those at the bottom of the ladder. Basically they decided to borrow a whole load of money and throw it about the place. Tens of millions of pounds worth of this money was ear marked for the Voluntary Sector and for a decade it became a Klondike. A major market was made out of basic misery. Charities had little interest in counting out 10p pieces from a collection pot on the counter of the local garage when they could bid for six figure contracts from the Council.
Big Charity soon decided that all of these lovely millions of public cash should be for it and it alone. And so they hired lobbyists to hang out in the House of Commons tea room to whisper in the ears of MP’s. Don’t make any cash available to all of those little charities. They are too amateurish to be trusted with the public purse millions. Oh no. The money needs to go to the professionals with London head offices and HR departments and adverts on the tele and Chief Execs on £150,000 a year.
And so the bar kept on getting raised. To successfully bid for any of the Government gold, you needed teams of lawyers and trained form-fillers. The application forms could be 100 pages long and written in the kind bizarre Government speak jargon that only super geeks could translate. You needed kite marks and a policy for everything and people to spend their days putting in time on all the various local quangos.
And for while it seemed like Big Charity would succeed in getting rid of all the pesky little charities much like the supermarkets saw off all the corner shops.
But then Lehmann Brothers crashed and the money train was put up on bricks. The days of the great public purse contracts were well and truly over. A lonely, moaning wind blew sage bushes down the suddenly deserted streets of the New Labour Klondike. The misery market crashed along with the sub prime mortgage market.
An the rat race stepped up a notch.
The gravy train had created thousands of well paid managerial jobs and the managers in question had no wish to lose their jobs. Who can blame them. Nobody fancies the scrapheap much. We’ve all got mortgages to pay and families to feed. So the message was loud and clear. Raise some cash quick or head for the Job Centre.
Basically this means that increasingly frantic charities will home in on any pot of gold they can find. Outfits which have always worked in the field of mental health all of a sudden want to set something up for stray cats. Well. Not quite that, but you get the drift.
It has all got rather unedifying. Rather ugly. But a scramble for cash is seldom pretty.
We are starting to get a taste of it here at First Base. For 12 years we have been handing out food parcels to people with nothing to eat and for nine of those years nobody took the slightest bit of notice. It certainly wasn’t a remotely hip kind of thing to be doing. When I spoke about the work of First Base to community groups, most people shook their heads at the idea of people not having anything to eat. I don’t think many believed it could be true.
Why did we start handing out emergency food parcels way back in 2003? Simple. Nobody else was doing it. There was a need and nobody was meeting it. There was no money in it either. We had to beg, borrow and steal to get the thing off the ground. 
One thing was for certain – nobody was remotely interested in getting involved in the feeding the hungry thing. It was deemed to be loser’s alley. No money in it.
But of course all of that has changed in a big way over recent years. Foodbanks have made their way out of the shadows and into the limelight and all of a sudden Big Charity is itching to climb on board. Because when something is on the tele and in the papers all the time, there’s got to be a few bucks to be had, right?
Which brings me to emergency food in the small market town of Dumfries. Once again I am well and truly biased here and I make no apologies for being so. In my humble opinion, Dumfries has to be the best place in the land to get something to eat if you are on your uppers.
Here’s why.
Every agency in town is familiar with the procedure of how to send a hungry person along to First Base to receive half a week’s worth of food. For years they have been able to send along their clients with complete and absolute confidence that the food will be there. First Base has never once run out of food. Never once has a person turned up at our counter and been turned away due to the fact that our shelves are empty. Once they get here, we give them a sheet of paper which tells them about all the places in town where they can get a free hot meal. Seven days a week. 365 days a year.
Between us, the charities of Dumfries have set up a genuine Rolls Royce of a system which runs superbly.
Nobody goes hungry. Nobody gets turned away. Nobody is judged.
In the last twelve months we have provided emergency food for 5000 people – which represents 10% of the population of the town. During that period I am pretty certain that a similar number of hot meals will have been served. This would be the equivalent of 1.6 million people a year being fed in London. I am pretty sure there will not have been that many.
More to the point, all of the charities involved in this effort are more than capable of doubling our capacity should it be required. We all have a list of people who are keen to volunteer their services and every month sees the local community donating more food.
I don’t believe there can be too many places in the UK where the provision of emergency food is so comprehensive and reliable.
So surely there is no need for any more food banks, right? Why would there be? After all, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. And all that.
But of course this kind of logic has nothing to do with anything. Because foodbanks are where it’s at right now and there are pots of gold to be had.
And so a national charity which has spent many years working to rehabilitate offenders has recently decided that the town of Dumfries is in dire need of another foodbank.
Now if you decide that you want to open up a fast food joint selling burgers or fried chicken, there is nothing to stop you buying a deep fat fryer and getting cracked on with it. But if I open ‘Mark’s Burger Bar’, it will seem like yet another dodgy take away. Two bit. Cheap and nasty. 
Well, maybe I want better. Maybe I want more credibility. Maybe I want some real brand recognition. So maybe I will talk my bank into loaning me the cash to buy myself a franchise to open up a McDonalds or a Kentucky Fried Chicken. Fair enough the franchise costs a living fortune, but from the very get go, my place will be part of something bigger. Something massive. And I will reap the benefits of all that lovely wall to wall advertising.
Well the new Dumfries foodbank has chosen to follow Plan B and they have opted to buy themselves a Trussell Trust franchise. If you want to open a foodbank under the Trussell Trust brand which of course has become pretty damn huge over the last three years, then the franchise will set you back £1500 for the first year. In return you'll get loads of advice, marketing tools, and fast track access into Tesco.
Oh yeah.
Nearly forgot!
You also get lots of help with funding. You'll get all the credibility and speadsheets you’ll need to make your case to funders. All the credibility and spreadsheets to make sure you stand out from all those amateurish little foodbanks who are quite frankly so very twentieth century.  
Once we heard that all of this was in the pipeline, we started asking a few questions.
I had a long chat about it with Ewan from the Trussell Trust. I asked him if they had evidence that the needs of hungry people in Dumfries were not being met? No. Not at all. So why were they considering selling a franchise for a new foodbank in the town? Not their decision. They simply vetted any potential new franchise holders to make sure they were fit and proper people to maintain the credibility of the brand.
I spoke with the people who are about to set up the new foodbank. I’m not going to use their name by the way. I don’t know why really. It just doesn’t seem right to do so.
For twelve years, these people have been sending their clients down to us on a regular basis. Have any of their clients ever been turned away?
Have any of their clients ever been treated badly by First Base?
Have any of their clients ever complained about the food they have received from First Base?
So why the sudden need to open up a foodbank of your own?
Ah well. Here’s the thing. We feel there is an unmet local need.
Like what?
Well we will be adopting the Trussell Trust model.
Which is?
We will only give anyone a maximum of three food parcels to any hungry pewrson. During that time we will help them to resolve all of their problems so that they don’t need any more help. I must admit, this kind of miracle cure seems unlikely with most of the folk we see every day. If the DWP decides to sanction someone for twelve weeks, I don’t see how only giving them a maximum of three food parcels is going to help. If you are drowning under a decade’s worth of accumulated debt and you’ve just been made redundant, I don’t see how everything can be turned around in a week and a half.
But maybe I am just too amateurish. Too twentieth century. 'Mark's Burger Bar', right?
OK, I said. Why not try this one on for size. Ten local agencies already hold a stock of our food parcels to issue to their clients in any way they feel fit. We can deliver twenty boxes to you tomorrow if you like. And if you want to ration your clients to a maximum of three and turn their lives around in a week and a half flat, then the very best of British to you.
For when all is said and done, food is food. You can save yourself £1500 and have emergency boxes of food delivered to you on a guaranteed next day basis and entirely free of charge. Or you can spend £1500 and go to all the bother of setting up a new foodbank in the town that already has the best emergency food provision in Scotland.
Which option do you think they took?
You got it.
£1500 and option B.
It isn’t the end of the world for us, but it is pretty damned annoying. There are plenty of chancers out there who are receiving their full benefits who prefer to spend their cash on much more exciting stuff than food. We are engaged in an ongoing game of cat and mouse with these guys and they will be delighted to hear there is a new show in town. No doubt they will take their sob stories to the new foodbank, pick up their three parcels, and then they'll find their way back to us. These are characters who love nothing more than to play one off against the other. They are past masters. We have a head start, having played the game with these guys for twelve years. They know us and we know them. 
They’re going to love the competition!
And then of course there is the money. We reckon we are seriously efficient. Every month over fifty volunteers from our local community give up their time to help us to collect and pack the food we need. But all charities have bills to pay. All the usual, boring bills like rent and salaries and telephone and heating. To raise the cash, we need we fill out application forms. And when we fill out the forms, we explain how we are the only foodbank in the area and how we feed 5000 people every year through our network of outlets.
Well, things are about to change, for now there will be two application forms for the funders to consider. There will be the form from the small charity who has been doing its thing for 12 years. And there will be another form complete with all manner of ritzy Trussell Trust spreadsheets and Pye charts from the new kid on the block. Mark’s Burger Bar versus McDonalds, right?
As if coming up with the wherewithal to issue 20 emergency food parcels a day isn’t enough of a headache to deal with!
Most annoying of all is the fact that the new foodbank will feel like a slap in the face to a lot of people. All those volunteers and churches and offices who have come together to help us to do what we do. What will they think when the country's number one Foodbank Brand comes marching into town with all guns blazing. The message is loud and clear. You good hearted amateurs have tried your best. And bless you for it. But now it's time to step aside and leave things to the professionals. We are the experts you see. We are the guys with hundreds of foodbanks under our belt. So jolly good and well done and all that. But it's time to step aside, don't you think?
How bloody insulting.
So thanks for that guys.
Welcome to the ugly face of the foodbank game!


  1. Surely given the community aspect of first base and partner agencies, couldn't the council effectively ring fence funding for first base or at least recognise its works. Will this new food bank corporation deliver to kelloholm and such? Will they provide the direction which partner agencies do. Have to think on that one. No, wait...

  2. Speaking as one who has just set up a not-for-profit based in Argyll, and dealing with national charities every day - I'm so glad I'm not the only one that has figured out that large charities are simply money-factories that are now completely out of touch with the very people they are supposed to be helping. Recently, my [disabled] co-Director was told by an [able bodied] manager at a [national disability] charity that she was using 'outdated terminology' and that "all people with disabilities use X these days". None of us had heard of X, and a survey of over 200 disabled people we undertook later revealed that neither had 98% of disabled people... Totally out of touch.

  3. I lived next door to an Oxfam shop for years and saw what they threw out in their bins. Shocking. My flat was a regular stop for re-cycling and up-cycling friends who would go through the Oxfam bins and take out loads of good stuff. The area manager drove a brand new car. The waste was spectacular. My biggest downer was throwing out bin loads of books because "no one has a car" to take them 1/4 of a mile to the specialist Oxfam book shop. Grrrrr!!!

    1. I am appalled by the specialist charity bookstores. They do not have the same overheads as a normal secondhand bookstores and all their stock is donated. this in effect has put many small secondhand book shops out of business!! Grrrr

  4. I have been helped by First Base Agency in the past, On my 16th birthday I was kicked out of care and sent to live in a homeless hostel. I had nothing and no one I had too use first base to get food, It was about 10 years ago I needed food on quite a few occations more than the 3 visit limit the trussell trust imposes. I have since sorted myself out, i have two brothers though who have used first base on and off for 10 years. Yes 10 years and not because They haven't learned how to manage money out of some sort of failing of the food bank system, It is because they have severe mental problems after their traumatic time in the care system. They will never get better they have these issues for life 365 days a year so having a service that helps them 3 times a year is no good, When we have or in the future quite possibly had a service that helped people no matter how often or what their problems are. I think Trussell trust moving in Dumfres is politically motivated, As a way of shutting up a prominent Independence supporter who also looks after the towns needy.

  5. Replies
    1. No probs, Your a great guy, who runs a great service. I am not ashamed that I had to use your service or want to hide it, I was glad it was there. You were doing foodbanks before foodbanks became vogue, Out of a genuine want to help others. I think the other foodbank is set up to teach users a lesson about being poor (A bit tory inspired for me). Anyway thanks for all your help. It was greatly appreciated I may not have made that clear at the time (I was a bit daft) but I remember it well. Not sure if you remember me but I used to come in with a guy called Gizmo (He's dead now unfortunately) and not as often with my brothers Donald & Stephen.

  6. What a fantastic piece Mark. Thank you for the very personal, but detailed insight into the mechanics of commodifying foodbanks. Astonishing that we see people beggared then profit/power/empires being built on their backs.

    More power to you sir

  7. Very interesting analysis. Perhaps explains why a Tory MP was chosen to open the new service. The 'three parcels while we assist you to get on your feet' policy is classic blaming the jobless/penniless for their predicament while ignoring the impact of those macro economic policies that benefit the wealthy and disadvantage the poor.

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

  9. I am genuinely scared by this.
    I presume this story is very similar throughout the UK?
    My finances, for various reasons, have always been borderline but only once for an extended period have they been the wrong side of it. A chain of circumstances left me stranded in Oxford with not enough income to feed myself so I ate from soup kitchens when I could get there for over 4 months.
    If 'big charity' muscles in & puts charities like yours out of business then fails to provide service I'm going to die the next time I'm caught out financially.