13 Dec 2018 03:25pm

In the margins

Through her work for Trust for London, Carol Harrison has indirectly helped millions of under-privileged people in the capital. She tells Xenia Taliotis about why she moved to the third sector and never looked back

Caption: Photography: Matthew Joseph

I look at the work Trust for London does and I feel proud of my small role in its operations,” says Carol Harrison, the Trust’s director of finance and administration.

“It gives me immense satisfaction to go to sleep knowing that the job I do indirectly helps improve the lives of millions of Londoners. That’s worth far more to me than getting to the top of the corporate ladder or making partner in a firm.”

Harrison left the business sector 30 years ago when she became chief accountant at The Children’s Society. It was, she says, a switch that chimed with her values and faith – she is a practising Christian – though the desire to do something purposeful preceded the awakening of her belief in God.

“I’ve always wanted to use my education and skills to help others – I consider it a privilege to do so – and moving into the charity sector was an easy way of doing that.”

Accountancy itself was less of a calling. Having read maths at the University of Oxford, she saw two clear paths ahead of her – teaching or accountancy – and chose the latter purely because both her parents were teachers. Having trained at Josolyne Layton-Bennett (which was acquired by Arthur Young), she was making rapid progress and had been head-hunted by a client when a friend saw the ad for The Children’s Society. She applied, despite the “unexciting” salary, and immediately realised that moving into the charity sector was the best decision she could have made.

She stayed 10 years before taking hold of the £333m purse strings at Trust for London in 1999. “A large part of my job is liaising with our investment teams, ensuring that we’re generating healthy rental income from our property portfolio and dividends, but the most enjoyable aspect is untying those strings to allocate grants totalling £8m per year to more than 300 organisations that are supporting those who are sometimes on the margins of society.”

She says the grants – rarely more than a few hundred thousand and typically much less – make “a tangible, visible and quantifiable difference. The organisations we help, often jointly with other bodies that share our goals, do enormous good, whether by raising awareness of an issue such as female genital mutilation or lobbying government to, say, change its policy on what it considers to be a living wage.”

Founded in 1891 to tackle poverty and inequality in the capital, the Trust has funded a diverse range of projects. Its archives provide a fascinating chronicle of Londoners’ needs through the decades. “You can trace the changing nature of the capital’s poor through the projects we support. When the Trust started, there was a pressing need for recreational space, so grants were given to campsites for poor families and to extend Hampstead Heath and Hackney Wick.

Then in the 1920s, funding went to William Beveridge, whose work formed the basis of the welfare state; in the 1940s to Isleden House, which provided housing and care to the elderly; and in the 1980s to the Terence Higgins Trust. Now we’re supporting organisations that are, for example, working with refugees and with victims of trafficking and exploitation.”

Current projects include Moving On Up, which aims to boost the employment prospects for young black men; Step Up, funding research and trials into how to help low-paid workers progress to better-earning jobs; and clean air for London.

Then there’s the London Living Wage, which Harrison feels just as passionately about. “The surest way of improving someone’s lot in life is to pay them a good wage or, at the very least, a living wage. We are jointly funding the campaign to increase the number of employers paying the Living Wage (LW), which, unlike the National Living Wage, is independently calculated and based on the cost of living. This would give Londoners £10.20 an hour – a pay rise of £2.37 for those on the minimum rate.”

The Trust has invested £1.2m to fund research and evaluation studies that show the benefits for employers who pay the LW and to establish the Living Wage Foundation, which lobbies employers to pay it.

Harrison is guarded about answering questions on whether London’s poverty problems are solvable; whether if, with clever accounting, the nation’s wealth could be put to more effective use.

“The Trust can only try to do the maximum good for the greatest number with the money it has at its disposal. The money has done and continues to do a lot of good, including helping give millions of workers a pay rise through the fact that 4,000 companies have now signed up to pay the Living Wage.

“We receive far more applications than we can possibly support, even when working with other charities, but I am thankful that my skills have placed me in a job where I can make a difference, however small. And for that I have my ACA to thank. It has given me the analytical, business and financial skills, and the dogged adherence to ethics and integrity, that now enable me to give back.”

The Account

I like being an ACA because... Your skills and expertise are recognised throughout the world by everyone you meet.
I’m happiest… Singing in my church choir.
My favourite book is… The Map That Came To Life by HJ Deverson.
The hardest lesson to learn has been… That we cannot control things. We are really such tiny clogs in an enormous wheel. We need the humility to recognise that and to know when to ask for help.
I’d like to be remembered as… Someone who noticed things, to misquote Thomas Hardy.
Love of my life is… Friendship.
My worst habit is… Lateness.