Helen Moss – how to change a life
“Let’s talk about lives being changed,” says Helen Moss, as we chat in a café surrounded by the remains of about 300,000 people whose lives are beyond changing.
We’re meeting in a cemetery, to discuss life. This is the beautiful irony of Arnos Vale, the Victorian necropolis that’s been transformed into one of Bristol’s liveliest places for a walk, a chat, a concert or indeed a funeral.
It’s at the heart of Helen’s story, really, and Quartet’s own. Helen is a trustee of the Arnos Vale Cemetery Trust that runs the site, which was rescued in 2003 from slow dilapidation under private ownership.
Rescuing the tottering obelisks, falling angels and crumbling crosses was just the start of the trust’s challenges – they also found themselves responsible for a substantial block of money, designed to secure the cemetery’s future.
That’s where Quartet came in, explains Helen. “A charity like the one running Arnos Vale might not have the time or experience to manage a large endowment as well as everything else, so they can come to Quartet and ask them to watch over the money.
“Transferring charitable trusts is a really useful side to Quartet’s work. The trust can still access the income they need to run the cemetery, but the arrangement provides more long term security – it brings in a layer of financial scrutiny appropriate for such an important asset in terms of local heritage.”
Parking funds with Quartet also helps a charity to secure more funding. When the Arnos Vale trust successfully applied for a National Lottery grant, the trust was able to show it kept its money in expert hands, almost at arm’s length, and could be relied upon not to squander any of it.
The result is that, with their finances in good hands, the cemetery stays very much ‘alive’, as Helen says. “There’s so much happening here, it’s developing into a real community asset. We’ve just opened a woodland burial site, and at the same time we’ve had 200 people here watching a film outdoors. And there are the weddings – who’d have thought people would be getting married in a cemetery?!”
Helen knows better than most how all of this works, because – before retiring and taking on voluntary roles such as this one – she was actually Quartet’s director for 12 years. She’s part of the foundation’s history, indeed part of the history of the network of community foundations, which emerged in the UK in the 1980s. Quartet, set up in 1987 as the Greater Bristol Trust by Helen’s predecessor Penny Johnstone, was one of the first of what was then a novel way of changing lives, and had to go through its own often difficult changes as it developed.
“Bristol had so many grant-giving bodies already, and the community foundation was a new concept. We had to prove ourselves. Other voluntary organisations worried we’d be competing with them, but we don’t do that, and had to make that clear.”
There was also the issue of running costs. For a new charity, it can look from the outside as if any donations just get eaten up by the charity itself, rather than finding their way to people who really need them.
“We had quickly to become more substantial to gain the confidence of donors”, says Helen, who became director in 1996. “But we also had to move out of our old offices, and into new ones – Royal Oak House – which back then were in a terrible state; there were trees growing through the roof. The very beginning is a tricky time for any new organisation – finding space, and money, and convincing donors you’re worth it and aren’t just spending the money on yourselves.”
But it worked, through careful growth that provided economies of scale, building a community of trusted local experts, and developing the way Quartet works.
“The heart of what Quartet does is giving out grants from its own endowment, which is very sizeable. But part of our development back then was about moving to a ’flow-through’ model – managing funds coming in and going out. In that way Quartet acts as a broker, between those people or organisations with money to give, and those community groups who need it.
Quartet’s main service is that of a philanthropy adviser, but there’s no doubt that its presence and expertise has also brought more charitable funds into the area. Big national charities always get a lot of money but Quartet’s work helps make donors aware of smaller causes on their doorstep, and gives them confidence about how donations will be managed. Quartet is also used by large national charities to help them get funding to grass-roots organisations that Quartet knows but which larger funders cannot find cost-effectively.
For Helen personally, being director of Quartet and watching it grow was her “dream job”, although very hard work.
“I felt incredibly privileged to be in that role, helping to make links between people, seeing all parts of the city – from Merchants’ Hall to St Paul’s. There are divisions in the city, gaps that may not ever close – but you can bridge them.
“I’ve always been optimistic about human nature, and this work has confirmed that. What’s been life-changing for me is watching other people change.”
She tells a story from her early years at Quartet. There was a youth worker in Knowle West who wanted to send a particular lad on youth development course, ‘Operation Raleigh’, because he knew it could be the making of him, but the money just wasn’t there. Quartet discussed it with one of its donors, a property developer, who agreed to fund the trip if he could first meet the youth worker and the young man in question to find out more.
The donor was hooked. “He could see somewhere different to use his business skills, and became really committed. He’s now passionately involved in The Park community centre at Knowle West. It was one of those chances to make a connection, and it would never have happened without Quartet.”
Our interview over, we stop to take some photographs. There’s a wonderful choice of backdrops at Arnos Vale, all with a creepy Victorian gothic vibe, but we steer away from the tombs and choose some columns instead.
Helen’s story is about life, after all, and how it can be changed – whether you’re a property developer who wants to ‘put something back’, or a teenager who can’t access an opportunity for lack of cash. Or indeed a retired community foundation director with expertise to offer to a cemetery.
You can read our other #thirtylives stories here and watch the film we made to celebrate our anniversary on Youtube.
With thanks to Rob Campbell, journalist, who kindly authored this piece for us. You can follow him on Twitter @rob15959