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Leadership Coronavirus

Gone with the wind

Caron Bradshaw shares the valuable lessons learned from failing to prop up a much-loved, ancient apple tree while it was still bearing fruit.

Post byCaron Bradshaw

My director of policy and I were having our usual one to one last week and sharing our very real concerns about the state of the sector. Time is running out for many charities. Whilst most in government seem to accept that there is untold damage being done to our social change organisations others point to positive news about shops sales, extra donations or increased government contracts as evidence that things are not quite so bleak as our campaigning would have you believe.

But accepting we’re in crisis is no good to us unless there is also action taken to prevent irreparable harm. As you will know I am a pictures and analogies woman – and a story that sprang to mind seemed to sum it up quite well. Let me share it with you…

Twenty-plus years ago, I purchased my parent’s home, an old farmhouse. It’s a delightful old building with many of the remnants of its previous life as a working farm, including a number of fruit trees. I love their gnarly appearance; some are not very pretty looking and others don’t produce as much fruit as the modern hybrids. Despite this, we’ve taken steps to preserve and care for these old trees, not just because they’ve been around for well over a hundred years, but because of the wonderful variety of apples they produce.

This summer, during lockdown, my daughter noticed a split in one of the trees at the bottom of our garden that we’ve been working hard to keep going. Having had an expert work on it last spring it seemed to be in marvellous shape – down to its last limb but thriving. The branches were heavy with fruit and I was expecting a bumper crop this year. So, I was gutted that it looked like its days were numbered. My husband examined the split, rubbed his chin and declared that it was all fine – that structural support was not required, and that the split would not affect the remaining limb. Sadly how wrong he was.

In the days after there were some strong winds. You guessed it, we woke up one morning to discover the trunk snapped in two. If you know anything about fruit trees you will know that the fruiting wood is grafted into the trunk of more vigorous but less palatable native called the crab apple. And for our dear old apple tree, that had stood for a hundred years and under which I had played as a child, the graft had failed. It has been lost forever and I doubt whether the variety is easily replaced.

A few weeks later I was delighted to see loads of new growth. You see the crab apple onto which our delicious variety of shiny red apples had relied was fighting for survival and loads of new wood was sprouting up around the stump. I will nurture this tree and relish the fruit I get in future from it but it will not be the same and there is definitely a limit to the things I can do with its output – crab apples are great but not as versatile as your average cultivated variety!

Had we acted when the split was first drawn to our attention I would now be enjoying a bountiful harvest. To an extent all the hard work over the last couple of decades to secure its future for decades to come was wasted by that single failure to act.

As a sector we are in the same position. Organisations that have been, in some cases, hundreds of years in development, that battled to get themselves in good shape after the last financial crash took its toll, are on the cusp of disaster. We might be gnarly and imperfect. There may be other organisations or sectors that government thinks provide more ‘efficient’ outputs. But what we offer is essential, for many who rely upon us, and incredibly difficult to replace. Relatively modest investment to prop them up now could be the difference between losing what they have to offer permanently – depriving generations to come – and preserving their services.

Like nature’s response which saw the stump sprout new wood, social change will be fuelled by those organisations that spring up to take the place of what was lost. However, whilst what clings to life in their place may offer many of the same purposes, that the charities that took an hundred years to grow and develop did, I am certain that we will feel the heavy sadness of what we could have saved. It won’t just be the sentimental memories of what they meant for us as individuals – it will be the very real loss of what they could offer that we will be unable to recreate.

My husband is no arboriculturist. He accepts with hindsight that we should have taken action. He shares my consternation that he called it wrong. He is no less sad than me at what we’ve lost – but we cannot turn back the clock. If we’d had a specialist telling us to take action we’d have not hesitated because it was important for us to save the tree.

When we wrote to Rishi Sunak last week it occurred to me that he is now in the same position my husband was only a few months before. He is making a judgement that action is not required, that it will all be fine. Unlike my husband, however, he does have the benefit of experts telling him what is required to change the outcome – and it’s not yet too late.

The winds are blowing hard and the branches are heavy with the weight of need. Taking steps to support the sector now will be investment worth making – the alternative is waking up to find we’ve snapped under the pressure and what bears so much fruit for so many has been lost in a blink of the eye.

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