Pic of dark-haired woman smiling

Meet RealService’s charity partners for 2024: Small Acts of Kindness

The Watford-based charity’s aim is that every older person feels warm and connected to their community

RealService staff and consultants voted to partner with Small Acts of Kindness as our charity this year after spending 2023 supporting Crisis.

RealService CEO Louise Freethy said: “Small Acts of Kindness came to our notice because RealService founder Howard Morgan is a trustee but I also know that many colleagues have elderly parents or grandparents, and when you’re in that situation it brings home how difficult it must be for older people who do not have that family support.

“SAOK source, pack and distribute practical gifts and information, including Warm in Winter gift bags, to vulnerable older people.

“Their aim is that every older person feels warm in their home and connected to their community, and we look forward to helping them do this both practically and by fundraising throughout the coming months.”

Pic of Lynne Misner, CEO of Small Acts of Kindness
Lynne Misner

Read on to meet Small Acts of Kindness founder CEO Lynne Misner who explains more about the Watford-based charity, how they work and why they urgently need to find new premises.   

How did you end up at SAOK?

Actually, it rather ended up with me.

I’m the founder, I set it up and it all began in January 2015 when my heating broke down in the middle of one of those very cold spells. Even though I had one of those lovely deals with British Gas, it still took them five days to fix the problem.

So, we had no heating and no hot water and because it was especially cold there was a lot of media coverage about the weather and around the cost of heating – about one pound a day for every degree of heat you turned up.

It’s probably a lot more now, but those were the stats in 2015.

I read about the impact the cold was having on old people, especially those on a fixed income and who were having to choose between heating their home or eating. Sadly, as we reach 2024, that message hasn’t changed.

In all honesty, if I hadn’t been so cold myself at that point perhaps I would have thought ‘that’s very sad’ and turned the page, but it’s physically and mentally draining to be cold all the time. I was lucky, I could go out and about, had extra heaters and plenty of warm clothes, but for a lot of people that wasn’t the case.

So, I started to Google ‘what happens to people when they get cold?’ and found that your blood pressure goes up, you’re more at risk of heart-attacks, your mobility and cognitive functions diminish – and you feel really miserable.

‘Wrap up and have cold drinks’

The next Google was ‘what can they do to keep warm?’ and the answers from Age UK were wrap up in a blanket, cover the extremities and have hot drinks. Obviously that doesn’t make the cold go away but it does help heat the person when they cannot heat their home.

So, I had this mad idea that maybe I could put together some gift bags with these kind of useful articles and distribute them locally.

Picture of a man packing a gift bag bag for Small Acts of Kindness
Packing a Warm in Winter gift bag

I reached out to my network and said I needed a couple of thousand pounds; so we raised the money, bought the stock, printed some leaflets and went out to places we thought older people might go – like libraries and community spaces – and we packed 50 bags which were snapped up.

This is how it all started; we’ve now been going nine years and we’ve reached 90,000  people across Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire in that time.

The problem is huge. Covid, the cost-of-living crisis and rising energy prices have made it really difficult financially for many older people.

I’m not sure what kicked me into action, but I’ve always been very mindful that it’s important not to be a bystander. You can make a difference one person at a time. This was a great opportunity to do something positive.

What’s your typical day at SAOK?

The one thing I’ve realised is there’s no typical day; it could range from water cascading through the roof of our warehouse to somebody putting an article in a publication saying ‘if you’re over 55 and want a warm-in-winter bag, apply here’ – and suddenly my lovely Monday is completely thrown out of kilter with an inbox full of requests and us trying to find out where the article came from.

A typical day would revolve around our core business which is bag packing and gift distribution but I’m always mindful that wouldn’t happen if we didn’t have any money so a portion of my day would be targeted at how we can increase our income.

Networking is important so people know what we do and support us then there’s curve balls that you have to deal with – they’re actually what can make things even more exciting, and I’ve learned a whole new set of skills on that front that I never thought I’d need.

Moving containers around the world

For example, I had a quick introduction on how to move containers across the world during Covid – freight not being something I’d previously given any thought to – so it’s always interesting.

My background is management consultancy. I used to work on a freelance business with small and medium businesses, so it was a pretty useful transferable skill. I have a focus on marketing and a background in sales and I used to volunteer and help small charities manage their boards and delivery.

Often small charities are started by passionate people who don’t have a business background, and I am the other way around.

Then my life changed, and I ended up working in the charity sector as a fundraiser and helping on various arts-based projects.

The opportunity then came up to apply for some funding that would pay for a salary for me for a year to run SAOK and I knew that if I didn’t run it full time as a job it couldn’t grow.

It’s not sustainable to be working a full week and then doing the same number of volunteer hours in evenings and weekends so I took the leap.

What’s top of your in-tray – and what keeps you up at night?

I have a small but fantastic team, which is really important, both employees and volunteers.

What’s always top is fundraising, and very close to that is what keeps me up at night – one is matching the demand for what we do with the income to deliver it bearing in mind over the last two years the demand has increased 50% and our costs by 30%. That worries me.

Also, what worries me is how the underlying problem can be resolved. We shouldn’t have to be doing what we do. It would be fantastic if the loneliness and isolation so many older people face, compounded by the fact they struggle to keep warm, weren’t there.

A lot of our work is how can we better connect communities, social connections are so important to our lives, whatever our health.

Companies who really understand what adding social value means can make a tremendous impact, across their organisation, and across their community.

We work with some fantastic corporates who embed their engagement in their whole structure; we like the money, obviously, but I always say that what we really want is that circular engagement with you.

It’s sad some companies see giving as a chore, an expense

It enhances the experience a member of staff has with their company, it helps build teams, it builds relationships with clients because these businesses are seen to be more than the business they run.

Pic of people packing gift bags in a Small Acts of Kindness warehouse
Packing in the SAOK warehouse

It’s multi-layered and it’s sad that some companies see giving as a chore and expense and they don’t understand the very many benefits and value it can bring.

Literally, at the moment, the top task is making sure all the bags our volunteers have packed are out with the organisations who requested them and I’m glad to say they mostly are. We’ve distributed 10,000 Warm in Winter bags already and we have begun distributing the requests from individuals who have phoned up or emailed either for themselves or their neighbours.

Do you have a call to action?

The thing that is absolutely vital to whatever we do is having a building to work out of.

We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have been gifted the use of the building we use at the moment, but we have to be out of there by the summer of 2024. That’s made me realise how fragile what we do is without a building to operate from.

We’ve been fortunate so far – we’ve been in this building for three years – but if we were to have to pay rent somewhere that would have a huge impact. We are actively networking to see how we can find a solution.

If anybody has a building with ground floor access for pallets, at least 3,000 square feet, ideally 5,000 square feet, in west Herts, let me know!

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