Two of Mark Cunningham’s key allegiances quickly become apparent during his first interview since formally taking over as chief executive of The Fed, Manchester’s major Jewish welfare organisation.
The Manchester City desk calendar is a give-away, although these days he’s as likely to be cheering on Stockport County. More relevant is his boundless admiration for a charity he initially encountered on a placement in the mid-1990s as part of his social work qualification.
“I loved the organisation and thought ‘I’d really like to work here’,” he recalls. When the opportunity arose shortly afterwards, he took “a sizeable pay cut to join but instinctively felt it was a good move”.
Starting as a social worker, he has risen through the ranks, serving as a team manager, head of services, director of community services and, most recently, chief operating officer. “They all seem to involve filling skips,” he says laughing. “It’s been a 20-year apprenticeship and I’m still learning.”
As chief executive, he has big shoes to fill, replacing the long-serving and well-respected Karen Phillips, whose philosophy impressed him from the outset. And as a non-Jew, he has been “blown away by how the Jewish community fills the gaps that social services and government leave”.
Celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, The Fed has its base at Heathlands, home to around 170 people — 100 in residential care, 27 in nursing care, 12 in a dementia care unit and 30 in Moorview independent living.
A shop, hairdressers, café and a synagogue which attracts a number of non-residents on Shabbat are among other features of the airy and welcoming interior.
The charity strives to foster a community ethos and one of Mr Cunningham’s favourite facts is that 1,000 people visit weekly. The café brings in school run mums and businessmen between meetings. It is also popular with children visiting relatives in the homes. “Grandma can send them to the café with a one pound coin to buy a halachically apppropriate bar of chocolate,” notes Mr Cunningham, who spent 10 years with a charity supporting children with epilepsy before joining The Fed.
There is also a more practical community café offering advice and assistance, a mental health drop-in and a children’s centre. “It means we are inspected by Ofsted as well as the CQC — double the fun.
“But Heathlands is the tip of the iceberg. So much goes on in the community that it’s difficult to quantify.”
For external activities, The Fed is grateful to a volunteer army in excess of 400 who contribute around 50,000 hours annually.
They play a vital role in combating loneliness, visiting people for a chat, or going with them to shul, or to a doctor’s appointment.
“A source of worry and concern” to Mr Cunningham is the number of young people in the community with drug or alcohol problems, or involved in crime. The charity also assists those in poverty. “We use grants from ourselves and others to be empowering. If someone is spending £15 a week at a launderette, we’ll buy them a washing machine.”
Asked to list his biggest challenges, Mr Cunningham replies he barely knows where to start. But funding is the most pressing.
“To put it into context, despite the council tax precept and the £2 billion announced in the spring Budget [for social care], Bury Council has offered us an additional seven and a half pence an hour to care for people. It works out at around £12.60 a week.”
If The Fed accepts the rise — “and it is still being debated” — the weekly contribution towards council-funded residents will go up from £445 to £458, £200 less than the true cost of care. “And that is without any contributions towards capital improvements. For nursing care, the cost is significantly higher, at least £900 a week.” Home care services are under pressure because of a gap of more than £1 an hour between the actual cost and local authority funding.
The National Living Wage is making recruiting and retaining staff more difficult. Wages account for £6 million of the charity’s £7.8 million budget. “Most of the staff will be getting a 4.5 per cent pay increase,” he reveals.
Although the living wage applies only to those aged 25 or above, The Fed uses it as the yardstick for all employees.
“We don’t think someone who is 24 should be paid less than someone who is 25.”
Perks such as health benefits and a subsidised restaurant are also offered to attract staff “who will maintain the quality care we aspire to. We’ve invested heavily in care staff but it will never be enough.”
The charity is committed to a new £1 million-plus dementia unit. “It will be a nicer environment,” Mr Cunningham says, “lighter, brighter with more access to outdoor space”. Most of the money will come from trust funds and capital donations.
To meet the shortfall in its general budget, The Fed will this year be looking to raise £1.75 million from the community.
“We’ve been remarkable in effectively managing the increase in cost by being exceptionally frugal, getting the best value wherever we can,” he points out. But Brexit-related price rises are making it more difficult to achieve savings.
“Where perhaps we could once have utilised government grants or service agreements with local authorities, increasingly they don’t exist, so we are more and more dependent on fundraising.
“In a world with no money, we have to work together.” To this end, Mr Cunningham is glad the local Chai Cancer Care service operates from The Fed’s site, as do Jewish Women’s Aid and the Association of Jewish Refugees.
Duplication is a major bugbear. “We could do meals on wheels but we know that others do it. The community doesn’t need another building.”