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Good giving in mental health

By Cecilie Hestbaek 9 October 2015

Tomorrow is World Mental Health Day. It’s a good time to remember the thousands of charities working to help people, and their families, as they live with—and recover from—poor mental health. Last year I wrote a piece for The Guardian as part of our work on their Christmas appeal to explain why mental health charities are important and how to identify the most effective organisations among them. If you’re thinking of donating to a mental health charity, or any other charity for that matter, I hope this advice helps.

Why does mental health matter?

Charities are working at the forefront of a problem which currently commands too little money and too little action. One in four of us will experience mental illness during our lifetime. People with mental health problems are more likely to live in poverty, to be homeless, and are less likely to work. Someone with the most severe mental health problems can expect to die on average 15-20 years before their peers. Despite all of this, there is still a stigma around discussing and seeking treatment for mental health problems.

What can charities do?

Charities do great things helping to fill the gaps where there aren’t statutory services. This is where charities often come into their own—they can be found in the community supporting families when problems arise, from counselling to arranging supported housing for people going through a crisis.

Charities are also vital as campaigners, to improve access to healthcare and tackle enduring stigma. They can also do things that the NHS can’t such as using private funding to pilot new ways of addressing mental illness—this can act as a first step to getting statutory funding for new ideas which work.

What does NPC look for in a great charity?

NPC has been helping charities for more than more than a decade, and it nearly always boils down to the same thing. Can a charity say: ‘This is us, we’ve created this change for people?’ And can they prove it?

Answering that question can be complex—we look at what charities do, the results they achieve, the quality of their leadership, the people and resources they command, the state of their finances, and the ambition of their work. We look for dynamic charities who can back up their claims with clear evidence.

For smaller charities it can be about having an understanding of how their unique strengths can best contribute to the local community. For bigger charities, it can be about taking a lead in the sector, and making a larger contribution to solving the causes behind an issue.

How do you make sure money goes to the cause?

People love to ask this—it’s the question I get asked the most. They say, ‘Oh, I know this big charity who spend all their money on admin costs and fat cat salaries’. The best thing for charities is to be transparent about what they’re doing, and let the public do the rest. When you choose a school for your child, for example, what are you going to look at? The educational attainment and Ofsted reports, or how much of the budget is spent on teachers’ salaries? Personally, I’d always choose a good charity that spends on admin over one which has low admin costs but is far less effective at actually helping people.