Interview: Simon Morris

The chief executive of the community’s biggest welfare organisation is facing some hard decisions as the recession bites


Simon Morris is optimistic about the future despite having to make staff redundant and warning about possible cuts to services

Simon Morris is optimistic about the future despite having to make staff redundant and warning about possible cuts to services

Being in charge of a large organisation means you have to make tough decisions. Like many bosses over the past few months, Jewish Care chief executive Simon Morris has been staring at a balance sheet which does not add up. As a result, he has had to make 17 per cent of his staff redundant.

While redundancies are always painful, job losses at Jewish Care carry extra poignancy. The organisation exists to help those in the Jewish community who are in need. By chopping his workforce, Morris realises that he is, in effect, adding to his own workload. But ironically, he is also in the unrivalled position of being able to support those have lost their employment.

“We work to help people. So to have to inflict this kind of pain on people is very difficult. If it’s possible, we’ve done it with compassion. We had to make 22 posts redundant, but because we have managed to redeploy a number of our staff, only 13 have had to go. Those who have gone have been provided with support. We are helping them to find new jobs and we have an employee protection programme.”

However hard the call for Morris, the all-important factor is protecting the services that provide care for more than 7,000 people — the elderly, the mentally ill, refugees, Holocaust survivors and people with special needs. Jewish Care is a big-budget organisation. It needs to raise more than £15 million every year just to keep going. To balance the books, Morris has had to find savings of £2.5 million. “If this recession is as bad as people are saying it’s going to be, then it could be a grim time for us,” he says. “All the changes are about protecting our services. But if the financial shortfall gets worse, we will have to start closing down services.”

Morris’s mood, however, does not match the depressing economic climate. Sipping tea from a Tottenham Hotspur mug in his office at Jewish Care’s temporary home in Colindale, North-West London, he finds it hard to contain his excitement about what the future will bring.

In a year’s time, he and his team will return to their rebuilt £40 million home in Golders Green. “Our offices will be there but it will be much more than a headquarters. It will be a care campus — the most exciting care development not only in Anglo-Jewry but, I believe, in the whole of Europe.

“It’s going to have a 56-bed nursing care home for people suffering with dementia, 45 flats with a care team on site 24/7, and a restaurant for those who don’t want to cook. When I talk to people outside the sector, they can’t believe what we are doing. Luckily, the funding was in place before the downturn began.”

He adds: “I can’t claim to have invented this phrase but in the past we attempted to warehouse people. What we should be doing is greenhousing people. Everyone has some kind of capability even when they are very old. Our job is to maximise that capability.”

The efforts by the 48-year-old Morris to transform Jewish Care elevated him to 15th position in the JC’s Power 100 of the community’s most influential Jews in 2008. He is proud of the acclaim, but says he is not one for profile-raising. Indeed, his reluctance to push himself forward is one of the reasons that he has never done a full-length interview in the five years he has been chief executive.

“When I took over, I was a bit uncomfortable in my office — it was a little too big for me. This one suits me much better,” he says, surveying the still generously proportioned accommodation from which he runs the organisation.

His vision for Jewish Care is simple, if tricky to achieve. “I want us to be the best at what we do. The thing is, we don’t have any excuse. We’re the right size. We’re large enough that people don’t have to worry about whether they are going to get paid at the end of the month, but small enough that everyone here knows who I am. We also have more than 2,500 volunteers, and people who give us lots of money. So we can do things that others can only dream of.”

In terms of management style, he is more a carrot man than a stick man. For example, every new employee gets to have lunch with the boss. “How can I expect people to give of their best if they are not given to? For people to work to their full potential, they need to feel they are valued and respected.”

This does not mean that he will remember what they are called, however. “I’m terrible with names. Unless you are called Simon, I probably won’t remember you. I make everyone wear name-badges so I know who I’m talking to.”

In some ways, Jewish Care reflects the national economy. As recession bites, there are more people in need. This is exacerbated by the demographics of the Jewish community, which is top-heavy with elderly people.

At the same time, his resources are diminished. Last year’s Chanucah appeal raised “significantly” less than the previous one, he says. And despite the best efforts of a fundraising team led by Jewish Care president Lord Levy, whose skills in this area have been widely publicised in the past year or two, revenue is down.

Morris says: “If ever there was a time to give responsibly, it’s now. We’re getting less state money too. We are very reliant on our donors. Eighty per cent of our money comes from 20 per cent of contributors. We also get money through legacies but it’s taking far longer to come through now because the property slump means that house sales are much slower.

“The frustrating thing is, I have worked hard for five years to eliminate our deficit and blow me down, just as we succeed, the credit crunch comes along.”

There has been other important work done in those five years. “When I took over, the organisation was in a difficult place. It didn’t have a vision and it didn’t have a strategy. Certain aspects of the business weren’t working well. The governance, communications, systems and services all needed work. Staff morale was also really bad. Five years on, morale is much better. How do we know? Staff turnover is falling, and length of stay of staff has doubled over the past five years.”

Jewish Care remains, in his view, “the best kept secret in the community”. He would love to be able to advertise services more widely, but to do so would mean taking resources away from the very thing he wants to publicise.

He has also encountered problems with some local authorities, notably the London Borough of Barnet, where more Jews live than anywhere else in the country. But surely Jewish Care is merely duplicating some services offered by local government? “Yes, a lot of our services are just badged Jewish. People make a choice that they want us to look after them. We have a good relationship with a lot of authorities, particularly Redbridge, but Barnet is a problem. They are stretched financially. So they are very happy for us to take over some services — so long as we don’t charge them, that is.”

Morris, who lives with his wife and two daughters in Finchley, north London, knows all about working for local authorities. After graduating from Keele University, he was employed for many years by Hounslow Council in west London. Initially he was a social worker but quickly realised that he craved a more strategic position. “Social work wasn’t really me. It’s like putting sticking plasters on people. What I’m about is breaking the cycle of deprivation. Money wasn’t a motivator, social justice was. One day I saw an advert for a job at Jewish Care and I thought I would have a look at the voluntary sector.”

His passion for the work his organisation does is clear. There is a story he enjoys telling. “There was an elderly housebound woman in Hackney who was being looked after by a home carer. The woman asked if the carer could bring her a candle with her grocery shopping. The carer forgot. This happened several times. She needed the candle to make yahrzeit and the carer did not realise its significance. So the woman asked that Jewish Care take over. The fact is that we understand these things. And this means we really can make a difference to people’s lives.”

Snapshot

● Jewish care is Britain’s 56th biggest charity.

● It was set up in 1990 as an amalgamation of the Jewish Welfare Board and the Jewish Blind Society.

● It employs 1,100 people. In addition, there are 2,500 volunteer workers.

● The charity’s rebuilt headquarters in Golders Green will cost £40 million. Completion is expected next year.

● It provide a range of services for more than 7,000 people every week across London and the south east.

● Among those it helps are the elderly, people with mental health problems, addicts, people with a physical or sensory disability, dementia sufferers, Holocaust survivors and refugees.

Last updated: 2:31pm, April 8 2009