While financial support is invaluable for charities, hands-on help provides assistance of a different kind. Steven Short examines the importance of Freemasons rolling up their sleeves and giving their time to good causes
The Masonic Charitable Foundation’s (MCF) charity grants only launched in April 2016, but have already touched and improved thousands of lives. And not just by donating much-needed funds – the grants go beyond financial contributions to offer practical support and that most precious commodity, time.
To date, about £3.2 million in grants have been awarded. Andrew Ross OBE, Chairman of the MCF Charity Grants Committee, is pleased to report that applications for grants have recently increased dramatically as people recognise what the charity is offering. ‘We are quite a big player in the world of giving,’ he says, suspecting that a lot of fundraisers have noticed how the MCF is now actively funding local causes as well as national concerns.
But there is much more to this charitable work than just awarding grants. ‘I look at the doing, as well as the giving,’ explains Dan Thomas, who is Chairman of the Five of Nine Club for young and new masons as well as Worshipful Master of St Peter’s Lodge, No. 7334, in Birmingham.
Dan recently offered his time to Acorns Children’s Hospice in Selly Oak, which had a conference room in need of some attention. ‘They had this huge space that was tired and battered so I organised a team of members, as well as inviting family and friends along, and we basically took the room apart, repainted and redecorated it,’ says Dan. ‘We then ended up outside painting fences and tidying up the gardens, too.’
‘Volunteers really are the lifeblood of FareShare.’ Lindsay Boswell
Meeting a need
For Dan, the day at Acorns was an opportunity to connect with a community. ‘It was such a good feeling, and we’re looking forward to our next project,’ he says, referencing the volunteer work he has lined up with FareShare West Midlands (right), which redistributes surplus food that would otherwise go to waste. In June FareShare was awarded a three-year grant of £60,000 from the MCF, which will part-fund the salary of a warehouse manager and help towards refrigerated vans delivering surplus food to charities. Dan hopes to assist at a local soup kitchen that struggles for staff numbers. ‘We’re going to take a load of brethren out and work there to take the load off,’ he explains.
The offer from Dan and his fellow masons is something for which Lindsay Boswell, chief executive of FareShare, is thankful. ‘Volunteers really are the lifeblood of FareShare,’ he says. ‘Without them we wouldn’t be able to redistribute good, surplus food to hungry and vulnerable people.’
Another organisation that has benefited from an MCF grant is Living Paintings, Berkshire, which was awarded £40,000 to fund its Touch to See Book Clubs. These groups give blind and partially sighted people the chance to engage with topics such as art and history, via specially designed books and audio material.
‘The book club project brings members together so they can share and explore the books in company,’ says programme manager Maria Storesund. ‘The impact [of the grant] has been huge. The project is going off at a great pace. Thanks to the Freemasons, we’ve been able to provide our members with more support and give them the books they’ve been longing for.’
Ten to 15 copies are produced of each book, along with an audio CD or USB stick, ‘so everyone can look at the books together. People get really inspired; even our quieter members will begin to talk.’
Provincial Communications Officer for Berkshire Robin Kent arranged for Deputy Provincial Grand Master Colin Hayes and Provincial Grand Almoner David Jarvis to attend a Touch to See session, to witness first-hand the work the grant would be funding and make the presentation of the grant.
‘They were really impressed by what they saw,’ says Robin.
‘Thanks to the Freemasons, we’ve been able to provide our members with more support and give them the books they’ve been longing for.’ Maria Storesund
Freemasons have also pledged to support Touch to See Book Clubs on a practical basis. One way they are doing this came about as a direct result of the visit. ‘Talking to people at the session about their local needs, we saw that some people were struggling to actually get there,’ says Robin. The lodge is now in the process of setting up a series of lifts to remedy this situation. ‘We’re finding local drivers to take people to the sessions that the MCF funds. We had no idea there was this
need before we got involved.’
The volunteering with Touch to See Book Clubs and FareShare is a great example of how Freemasons are increasingly giving time as well as money to those in need, and taps into something Dan has identified during his work with young and new masons. ‘I want to explore taking the charitable arm of Freemasonry in a different direction, to do something that isn’t just about giving money,’ he says. ‘We want to take the Freemasons into the local community – to see what we can do for people, and let individual Freemasons see what we could do for people.’ Dan has created a #freemasonryinthecommunity hashtag for use on social media to support the idea.
The MCF’s Ross adds his thoughts: ‘There is no doubt that volunteering is a huge resource for good in this country, and the Freemasons, their families and their friends have a lot to give. We are reminded to be good citizens and to think about others. We’re reminded, as the words of the initiation put it, to be respectable in life and useful to mankind, and giving to charity is one important way in which we do this.’
And for organisations like FareShare, hands-on help will always be desperately needed. FareShare’s Boswell says, ‘We’re growing rapidly, so we’re on the lookout for more volunteers – sorting food, working as a delivery driver, or collecting food donations at Tesco during the Neighbourhood Food Collection, which takes place at the start of December.’
Both Dan and Robin believe that those who volunteer are rewarded equally to those on the receiving end of such generosity, albeit in a different way. ‘It gives you a great sense of achievement and wellbeing,’ says Dan, who also feels the work with Acorns Hospice helped to strengthen the Five of Nine Club. ‘We built relationships within the group. People learned new skills, and it gave everyone a sense of purpose and worth.’
Robin says, ‘Personally, I find it very rewarding actually making a contribution to the community. Freemasonry is about two things: making better people of the individuals who are Freemasons, and those people making a valid contribution to a better society.’
And of the MCF grants, Ross notes wisely, ‘We’re not the biggest grant giver, but we are a significant one: we have a budget of £4 million to £5 million, enough to make a significant impact,’ he says. ‘I think people know that masons are a generous bunch, but now we have an opportunity to think really seriously about how we can make an impact on society, for the better of everybody.’
‘We built relationships within the group. People learned new skills, and it gave everyone a sense of purpose and worth.’ Dan Thomas
FIND OUT MORE FARESHARE www.fareshare.org.uk
TOUCH TO SEE www.livingpaintings.org
Warwickshire support for Acorns
Every year for the past five years, Warwickshire Freemasons have donated £150,000 via the Masonic Charitable Association to around 120 non-masonic charities, including Acorns Children’s Hospice in Birmingham. Founded 27 years ago, Acorns offers a network of specialist palliative care and support across the West Midlands for babies, children and young people with life-limiting and life-threatening conditions.
Over the years, support for Acorns from Warwickshire masons has included technical help with computer equipment that was installed at the Selly Oak hospice by Lifelites, a charity backed by the masonic community.