Charity issues

Joe Russo’s Enthusiasm Trust bouyed by ex-Leader Banwait – unravels, despite controversial Queen’s Award

Photo: Left ( Derby News) ; Right (credit – University of Derby)

The Enthusiasm Trust was recently presented with the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services, yet,  has few volunteers.  It claims, as a small charity that

  “…more of your money goes directly to the community and doesn’t get lost in admin costs”,

yet nearly 50% of its total income ,last year, was spent on the salaries of a few “key management personnel”, including the founder, Joe Russo and his wife, Heather, with combined salaries of around £70,000.

Enthusiasm is a local charity, founded in 1992, by Joe Russo.  It works with young people who are at risk of being involved in criminal behaviour. In Derby, it works principally in Allenton and Osmaston.It became a charity in 2000 and has since received substantial funding from the  Council. There is no public reporting of how many people have been helped, or other quantifiable outcomes.

The award ceremony at Nightingale Hall on the 3rd October was significant by who was absent.  This was supposed to be an opportunity for Enthusiasm’s partners to participate in this moment of celebration. However, despite Derby City Council granting the charity £2 million+ over the last 10 years, no one in a senior position from the Council attended. Despite there being a claimed close relationship with Derbyshire Constabulary, all senior officers declined the offer to participate.

No Councillors were present, from the wards where Enthusiasm base themselves, namely Sinfin & Osmaston, Boulton, or Alvaston. There was no evidence of any of the young people that they help or the numerous volunteers that Enthusiasm claim to have.

Derby Homes, who grant Enthusiasm £100,000 pa was represented by its Managing Director, Maria Murphy,  who is also a Director of Enthusiasm.

Ex-Leader of the Council Ranjit Banwait attended. He is a personal friend of Joe Russo, colleague in the Labour Party and, allegedly, the person who signed the Queen’s Award nomination paper which,  was, reportedly, written by an employee of Enthusiasm. Something that would invalidate the nomination.

The Award was presented to Enthusiasm, on behalf of the Queen,  by the Lord Lieutenant of Derbyshire, William Tucker who stated that they “richly deserved this recognition”. Mr Tucker’s office confirmed that he hadn’t personally visited Enthusiasm ( 2 of his representatives did, a Colonel and former Chief Constable). I asked how he had arrived at this conclusion – he chose not to comment.

There is one thing that is certain;  there is great ambivalence towards Enthusiasm in Derby. Many people from diverse organisations approach them with great scepticism.

Reports from ex-employees, of which there are many, are not flattering. One recent ex-employee described the volatile atmosphere, and explained that when they arrived in the morning they didn’t know if they were going to be met by “shouting or bacon butties”. There are many reports of other unsavoury behaviour which may be covered in a later article.

So how did they manage to get the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Services?

The eligibility requirements for the Award state that “More than half the people who work in the group must be volunteers” and  “We look for evidence that the volunteer activity is exceptional, along with nominations that bring out the roles of volunteers and whether the activity of the group is volunteer-led”.

People with a close knowledge of Enthusiasm are only aware of a handful of active volunteers. Little evidence is reported that the volunteer activity is anywhere near as prominent as the Award criteria require.  A source has reported that Enthusiasm assured the Queen’s Award assessor that they had 200 volunteers!

To the unchallenging eye, you would think that Enthusiasm is a large organisation given the number of projects for which they have funding. Their social media and website platforms give no indication of any activity whatsoever.

Enthusiasm is much smaller than it was just one year ago. There are just 11 paid people, 5 of whom are the leadership team and admin. There are 5 Youth Workers (2 full time, 2 part time, and 1 apprentice) , servicing projects to a value well in excess of £200,000.

Enthusiasm was “nominated” for the Queen’s Award a few years ago and was unsuccessful.  Arguably, the organisation is less compliant now than it was then.

£100,000 pa  Derby Homes Grant

The original annual funding for Enthusiasm from Derby City Council (around £350,000 pa) reduced significantly around 2013/14. It was at the time that grants to Voluntary Sector organisations were being cut heavily.  It is evident from Cabinet Papers that there was a desire to continue with Youth Intervention work at £100,000 pa. This budget “migrated” to Derby Homes ( a subsidiary of Derby City Council) by increasing the management fee paid to Derby Homes. Enthusiasm became the sole recipient; no one else was invited to participate. When Derby Homes was asked:  “Who specifically authorised this payment to Enthusiasm, in 2014”, there was no conclusive answer. There was no clear reason as to why a grant, previously made from Derby City Council was now being processed through Derby Homes.

This took place just after Ranjit Banwait became Leader.

Despite Derby City Council cutting all other Voluntary Sector grants to zero in 2016, Enthusiasm’s was maintained at £100,000 pa, via Derby Homes.  The Derby Homes Operational Board minute states, each year, that the grant must be ratified by the Council Cabinet.  This has not  taken place.  Derby Homes was questioned on this, its response was:

“The reference to Cabinet is an error…it is accepted that it would be clearer if separate authority from the Council for each year’s grant was obtained in future”

The £100,000 grant is for the mentoring of 100 young people, primarily, living in Council houses/estates. There is no definitive and transparent list of who is being mentored that is available to other agencies within the City that support young people. Just over a year ago, Enthusiasm, employed 5-6 full time Youth workers who could support the mentoring of 100 young people. Until very recently that dropped to 1 full time person, plus 2 part-timers….to cover 100 young people, and for which they continued to receive £100,000.

Maria Murphy, continues to be the Managing Director of Derby Homes, as well as the Director of Enthusiasm during this period.

There is no audit of how this money has been spent, and whether any outcomes have been achieved.  – this is money paid, ultimately, from the Council Tax.

Knife Crime

Derby City Council and Derbyshire Police have an on-going knife crime programme within the City called “Stand Up to Knife crime”. Projects attempting to reduce this type of weapons based assault is currently backed by considerable funding from the taxpayer. This is an opportunity not missed by Enthusiasm.

Earlier this year,  Enthusiasm was granted £25,000 by the Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) for a knife crime programme in the Sinfin area. This is on the basis that, currently, there is no coverage from any agency in this district.

The agreement promises, a 12 month intensive programme, a full timetable of youth activities, and mentoring of just 2 people. This was awarded to Enthusiasm contrary to the advice of Derby City Council and Derbyshire Constabulary. The Office of the PCC was questioned about how they could be sure that there was no duplication of participants with other programmes. They stated that they relied on the assumption that there was a common database of names shared between all agencies in the City, and Enthusiasm, to avoid this very problem. Such a database does not exist as Enthusiasm is not transparent with approved bodies as to who they are supporting.

In August 2018, Enthusiasm was awarded, by the Home Office, a further £30,000 for a 6 month programme starting in September 2018 , covering both Derby and Nottingham…on knife crime. The project is very similar to the PCC agreement – mentoring, youth clubs, workshops. There is no objective mechanism for ensuring that it’s for a completely different cohort of young people.

Allenton Big Local

In 2011, The Big Lottery Awarded the district of Allenton £1m over 10 years to bring sustained change to the district. It was a “Big Local” project.  As it was a geographical area, rather than an organisation, the initiative required someone to manage the finances – the receipt of the grant, and payment of bills – a “Locally Trusted Organisation” (LTO).  The LTO for the Allenton Big Local is Enthusiasm, for which they receive a 5% management fee.  Additionally, it delivers a number of the programmes in the project around mentoring, youth activities, community events  to the value of nearly £70k pa.

The Big Local Partnership, in Allenton, is run by resident  members. Currently there are 6, including Joe and Heather Russo, and Rebecca Manship who, until recently, was an employee of Enthusiasm.

To qualify as a resident member, the person has to live within the defined Allenton Big Local Area. In the original consultation the boundary, to the east, (blue line) stopped just before Merrill Academy  (where Joe Russo is the Chair of the Board of Governors). This would also have meant that Joe and Heather Russo would not be eligible residents,  due to the location of their house. By the time that the final report was issued the boundary had moved much further eastwards (red line), into Alvaston, to include the school, and the Russo residence. This gave them the opportunity to control the project and the finances.

The reason given for the move was that the original boundary divided “clearly defined sub-communities” in Allenton; “These have been created due to prominent roads and a local park”.

Finances

In the last published set of accounts (31 March 2017), the income was £445k, and the costs were £683k giving a loss in the year of £238k. 75% of the costs were salaries for the staff with nearly 40% being paid to the “key management personnel”

There is a note to the accounts which is significant, by virtue of its inclusion, but not quantified. It is is unclear how the reserves were lost, and why the explanation was opaque.

Free, Council owned,  buildings

Enthusiasm has free access to the Cotton Lane Community Centre from which they run their Friday night youth club, as well as the Rykneld Community Centre. Derby Homes has donated, for use as their office base, a residential property on Hawthorn Street.  One that could be used for domestic purposes.

Enthusiasm are in the process of re-locating to larger premises on Addison Road ( also domestic houses) previously used by an Osmaston based residents group.  They are displacing the Council’s Local Area Co-ordinators, despite the fact that they have full use of the 2 Community Centres. All at a rent of £1 (one pound) pa.

Comment

In speaking to a number of ex-employees from a few years ago, it is clear that Enthusiasm did some good work. This was when it was staffed by capable people and before the leadership team drove them out, one by one. Anyone who dared to question Joe Russo, or stand up to him didn’t last long; others decided that they had just had enough.

Over the last few years Enthusiasm has been buoyed by having connections in high places, namely Ranjit Banwait, the ex-Leader of Derby City Council. During recent tough times, Enthusiasm’s status has been over-inflated by this support.

For many people working in the critical front-line services supporting young people, they see below this illusion, observe the reality of what is masquerading as quality youth support, and have started asking serious questions about what actually is being delivered,  how it is being led and where the money goes.

It is this which gives rise to the widespread antipathy towards Enthusiasm and the disbelief that they were presented with the Queen’s Award.

With Ranjit Banwait now having gone, and with more people feeling empowered to express themselves and raise questions, publicly, then I’m sure things will become more transparent in the future.

Postscript

As Joe Russo said in his speech at the Awards event – with Enthusiasm,…

“It’s about seeing what people don’t see”

Categories: Charity issues

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