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Monday 3 November 2014

Toxic - How charity has become the wrong Monty Python joke

When Monty Python were in rehearsals for their comeback this year, one wonders if they reflected on how some of their sketches would stand the test of time.  If they did, then their confidence in performing The Four Yorkshiremen sketch  – a parody on narratives about difficult childhoods – seems sadly well placed.

In the charity sector there is a techincal term to describe the Four Yorkshiremen sketch – it’s called research-based fundraising narratives.  The basic principle is to paint as negative a view of young people as possible, sprinkle a few connections to the inspiring works of the charity publishing the report, and make recommendations which will validate the charity's own needs for further funding. 

Following The Prince’s Trust’s ‘Youth Index’ –  an annual event of self-serving misery – now we have Centrepoint’s ‘Toxic Mix’, a report on the health needs of those they continue to stigmatise as ‘homeless young people’.  Centrepoint has published some useful things in its time, but this report marks a low point.  I have to confess, I didn’t have enough wellbeing to read beyond the executive summary leaflet, which limits my views. But there is plenty here to get upset about.

Let’s start with the pictures.  Centrepoint has made a name for itself in recent years as a campaigner offering black and white images of young people looking sad for us to donate 40p to.  At least we are treated to colour pictures, though their penchant for using actors or posed images remains. One can only assume the young person with a smiling face reading a book in the library wasn’t looking at a Centrepoint report that has hardly a positive word to say about them.

I had harboured the hope that Centrepoint’s successful fundraising was investing in innovation. Indeed, I know that their health work is meant to be pretty good.  It and the people they serve – and let’s not forget that word– deserve far better than a report whose negative language and understanding adds little to the pressing need to address the health inequalities experienced by youth in homelessness contexts.  Not that this is a summary which even mentions the word ‘health inequalities’, or can find in its heart to suggest that young people might also possess the health ability to shape their own thriving futures.

We are told that within Centrepoint, ‘working with young people to address their health needs is a fundamental part of the process…’ But strangely it doesn’t appear to be one that stretches to recommending that anyone should actively involve those young people in defining their experience of a healthy life and how its supports can be shaped. Clearly, young people’s role in this bleak view of charity and health is to ‘get’ rather than to ‘give’. It makes for a thin set of recommendations.

Ironically, the report highlights the important issue of ‘the ongoing stigma associated with mental health’.  I quote: ‘staff reported that young people still hold negative views about mental health and are nervous of talking about problems they may be facing because of the associated negative stereotypes.’ Just exactly how are Centrepoint contributing anything positive to this by continuing to use deficit-based marketing collateral to sell homeless services? Why produce a summary report that offers nothing positive in its analysis to address the idea that mental health has anything other than negative needs-based connotations with this particular group of young people?  I can’t understand how a charity could possibly fail to realise that its own choice of language fuels the general stigma that young people face in our sector and society. As Martin Seligman notes, to flourish, you also need the right words and associations to connect with in your environment. Are we really so ill equipped that we can't identify those things in our health assessments and interviews?

Page 4 of the executive summary produces a little image of a person surrounded by circles explaining the various negative health needs of young people.  There is room on the page, but no attempt to offer any of the qualities that young people show in dealing with their health challenges; in the assets and strengths that they do possess; in the many things that they bring to their community; in their personal goals and resilience to keep going in the face of such misrepresentation.  Despite talking about a ‘young person focussed approach’, young people have actually become a set of ‘needs’ in which they are utimately a ‘homeless’ stereotype first and foremost, an actual person second (See how the Teenage Cancer Trust talk about who they work with ‘as young people first, cancer patients second’ for an alternative).

Like the Monty Python sketch, this becomes an executive summary in which you can almost hear the writer salivating over the worst data they can find to support a cause demeaned by its presentation.  Young people deserve a better future – one they can create themselves when they have the right investments and belief.  A toxic mix of disadvantaged thinking about health needs is no remedy.

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