We have a collective responsibility to solve poverty

At the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) and Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust (JRHT), we are redesigning our missions. Campbell Robb, Chief Executive, explains how and why we’re doing it.

Despite huge social and economic progress, one in five of the population live in poverty. At JRF and JRHT, we recognise that times have changed, so our approaches must change too. That’s why we’re redesigning our organisations to focus on our vision of a prosperous UK without poverty, so that everyone has good living standards and prospects, and a decent, affordable place to live.

Joseph Rowntree founded his trusts more than 100 years ago, tasked with rooting out the underlying causes of social problems, and developing self-sustaining communities. He did not want his funds to be used for charity, but to create social change. Today, charged with re-imagining Rowntree’s mission for the modern day, JRF is making solving UK poverty its mission and developing new ways to have an impact.

We have forensically examined the trends and challenges facing people in poverty in Britain for over 100 years. Whilst the nature of poverty has changed in that time, levels of poverty have remained relatively static over the last 20 years, until the most recent figures began to show a rise. But they were already too high. As a country that believes in justice and compassion, we have a collective moral responsibility to change this.

Approaches to solving poverty must change

Times have changed, and so too must approaches to solving poverty. The vote to leave the EU revealed the sharp disconnect that many people felt, and the political responses show little prospect of tackling the drivers behind the vote. The resources to tackle poverty at local and national level – energy, time and money – are constrained. We see the challenges first hand through our housing trust. Like many care and housing providers, JRHT has had to adjust and innovate to continue its mission to build and develop strong, empowered communities.

The reality is that meaningful social and political change on poverty is unlikely unless there is the public support for it. The belief that poverty is a wrong to be righted appears so self-evident to those of us who feel this way, we can overlook that stating the facts on poverty does not win hearts and minds. We will stay true to evidence and hold governments and others to account for their impact on poverty, with rigorous and independent monitoring. But we will match our commitment to evidence with a long-term campaign to build public and political will for change. 

And we need credible solutions. The way our economy, markets and society are designed means millions of people on the lowest incomes are locked into a daily struggle to make ends meet. Over the next few years, we will work with others to develop credible solutions on the areas that will make the biggest impact: so that more people find a route out of poverty through work and a better social security system, and more people live in a decent, affordable home. 

Challenges of this scale require organisations and individuals to collaborate with others to achieve change. We will be looking for partners who can work with us to make a step change in the UK’s approach to poverty, and we will be joining the initiatives of others. Our most significant partnership will be building on the work of the Poverty Truth Commissions and others so that people with lived experience of poverty are driving the change. There has been no successful social movement for equality that has not been led by the people most affected, and solving UK poverty has to mean people who are living it having a more equal role in public life.

New missions and a united focus

What unites the plans for JRF and JRHT is a shared focus on achieving a prosperous UK without poverty, delivered through JRF’s new mission to inspire action and change to solve UK poverty, and JRHT’s new mission to build and develop strong, empowered communities without poverty or isolation. Both organisations will now galvanise around the outcomes we want to achieve together over the next few years, united by a desire for everyone to have good living standards and prospects, and a decent home in a good place.

Focusing on outcomes – whether for residents, communities, or policy change – requires us to modernise what we do and how we do it. We will use the opportunities that technology and the internet era provide to transform the way we work. As an employer, I want us to be considered an outstanding place to work by our staff, who feel that whatever their role, they are part of achieving our vision. We have worked with staff to develop our first organisational values, which capture who we are and who we want to be: we are built on trust, we show we care, and we make a difference. 

Taking on the stewardship of a historic organisation like JRF and JRHT could be a daunting task. But I firmly believe that institutions need to adapt to survive in this modern era. Our challenge is a great one. But Joseph Rowntree achieved so much in his lifetime: political and social reform, building new communities, and huge business success. Rowntree continues to inspire all of us in demonstrating that significant social change is possible. The need is as urgent today as it ever was. 

Read our strategic plan.