Jane and Libby were recently interviewed by Third Sector Magazine, sharing FARA’s origin story and their plans for the future.
Written by Rebecca Cooney / Photography by Simon Fernandez
What lies in store for FARA?
Most people who are aware of FARA likely know it thanks to its chain of more than 40 charity shops in and around London. Established in 1992, it was at the forefront of the move toward boutique charity outlets, with specialist branches for children’s clothes or books, while a vibrant Retromania store tapped into the expanding trend for vintage clothing.
FARA celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021, and its shops have been pretty successful – in 2019, the retail operation brought in £10.1m of Fara’s £10.3m income. But even those browsing the rails for vintage treasures may be unaware of what the charity actually does.
Behind the quirky shop fronts lies an intriguing story. The charity was founded by a former nurse, Jane Nicholson, after she witnessed first-hand the appalling conditions in Romania’s state institutions (referred to as orphanages) following the collapse of the Communist regime in 1989.
Since then, FARA estimates it has supported more than 10,000 of the country’s poorest and most vulnerable people, focusing on children with disabilities, learning difficulties and complex needs.
But FARA is something of an anomaly – despite its relative size, age and impact, it had no paid UK staff outside the trading subsidiary until 2021, and was run by trustees.
Funding came primarily from the shops, as well as occasional grants and a handful of donations from major donors, and it quietly got on with supporting the work carried out by its sister charity in Romania.
As FARA enters its fourth decade it has reached a crossroads. In September last year it appointed its first chief executive, and Nicholson, who has led the charity as chair since its inception, stepped down.
Libby Gordon, the new chief executive – and, so far, the charity’s only directly employed staff member – has a mandate to employ a team and begin building a more traditional charity operation. Her mission, she says, is “to bring the charity and the shops closer together” and draw attention to FARA’s ongoing work in Romania.
So how did the charity find itself in this strange position – and what lies ahead?
An institutional crisis
The execution of the Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu on Christmas Day 1989 ended 42 years of Communist rule, along with the isolationist austerity policies that had plunged the country into severe economic hardship.
As Romania began to open up, incoming TV crews revealed unexpected horrors. In more than 1,800 institutions, the regime had hidden people it believed could not be made productive members of the workforce: those with physical and learning disabilities, those with treatable, mild physical conditions, and those who had been abandoned.
About 600 of these institutions housed children. Many were labelled as orphanages, but very often the children they held had living parents who either could not afford, or had not been allowed, to take care of them themselves.
“Lot of the people I saw who came to help were done down by the massiveness of it all,” Nicholson says. “But I knew I couldn’t walk away, having seen it.”
It wasn’t easy – between a lack of resources on the ground, a still-fearful local population, recalcitrant officials and occasional calls from the Romanian security police, Nicholson had to be determined to stick to her mission to change the lives of the institutionalised children.
“I didn’t really look into the future; I worked in the present moment because it was too much to think about,” she says.
“People said to me at the time: ‘You won’t make a difference, it’s too huge’, and all I could say was: ‘Well, so what? It will make a difference to the people we do help.’”
As the months went on, it became clear the charity would need more sustainable income than the donations Nicholson had been able to solicit by speaking to philanthropists. Inspired by her experience of Sue Ryder’s retail outlets, she looked to trading. Fara’s first shop opened in August 1992 in Fulham, south-west London.
For the first few years, FARA’s Romanian volunteers worked in the institutions, but Nicholson had a far more radical idea in mind. The charity’s first children’s home, working on a relatively small scale with just 16 children, opened in 1997 – after being literally built from the ground up, because there had been no properties available to buy.
A second home for children followed in 1998, and in 2012 the charity opened two “homes for life” centres, where adults with ongoing needs could be supported in a family environment.
The idea of the small group homes, according to Nicholson, was “to put family at the heart of everything”.
A founder bows out
FARA’s work has now expanded to 18 different programmes, including physical and art therapy and day centres for children, skills training for vulnerable adults and education support programmes that provide school equipment and hot meals to help children from the poorest families stay in school.
Three decades on, the Romanian institutions still exist; they are better, and there are fewer of them, Nicholson says, but the charity’s work is far from over. Romania remains one of the poorest countries in Europe, with an estimated 50 per cent of children in the country at risk of poverty and social exclusion.
FARA’s Romanian arm, which exists as a separate legal entity but is almost entirely funded by its UK counterpart, employs more than 300 Romanians who offer care and support across the country, and it estimates that it has helped about 10,000 people.
Nonetheless, Nicholson recognises that the time has come for her to step back from the administration of the charity in the UK.
“I am determined not to be one of ‘those’ founders,” she says. “It’s not about me, it’s about the work.”
The ‘unusual luxury’ of change
On the face of it, FARA’s new chief executive could not be more different from its founder. Nicholson’s demeanour is brusque, albeit shot through with flashes of humour; and, while clearly competent at dealing with the minutiae of charity structures and administration, she is visibly impatient with the whole thing. Her successor, Libby Gordon, could fairly be described as bubbly, and firmly believes that her contribution to making the world a better place comes from providing others with the resources to go out and do the best job they can.
Gordon grew up in a small town in New Zealand with a sense that she would like to help make the world less unjust, and at 22 flew to India to spend five months working for an NGO. Once there, it turned out one of the most useful things she could do was show staff how to use Microsoft Word.
“I realised I’m not the person who can help with some of those [frontline] things – but I do have some skills I can bring, like strategic direction to operational delivery, that bigger picture work around bringing people together to have good conversations,” she says.
But she and Nicholson do share some common ground. Gordon says that, following her work in India, she realised: “I wouldn’t be able to make a difference to everyone, but if I can make a difference to a few people and a few communities, that is worth doing.”
When she speaks to Third Sector, she has just returned from a trip to Romania to visit the charity’s centres.
“I was really impressed with how much the staff in Romania are committed to FARA, to our values, to the idea of a family and to this really good model of delivery,” she says, relating how a maintenance worker at one of the charity’s centres had burst into tears while telling Gordon how she high-fives each of the children as they arrive and leave each day.
Staff at the FARA shops are well-versed in the charity’s work, too – before the pandemic, senior employees were routinely flown to Romania to see it for themselves. But Gordon says the organisation needs to reach a wider section of the public.
“There’s a huge range of charity donors around. Some people want to just give money and know it’s doing something good, whereas some want to really understand the issues and the detail,” she says.
“I don’t think we’re offering enough opportunities across that spectrum to those people, so we want to look at that.”
Over the next couple of years, Gordon aims to introduce a number of fundraising and communications roles, as well as administration support for the charity. But her first priority will be to define a strategy to develop the charity and unite it with the trading arm.
Her initial plan has three strands, she says: raise awareness of what the charity does and public understanding of the issues in Romania; ensure the charity maintains steady income from retail while growing other income streams; and retain a thriving, productive workforce to accomplish those things.
Gordon is conscious of the charity’s unusual position – in some ways acting like a start-up, but in other ways a well-established, multimillion-pound organisation.
“I should have a lot more scope to be digital-first with our processes, our fundraising and our supporter engagement, because I’m starting from scratch,” she says.
“I have the unusual luxury that, because income generation has been really good, I don’t have to do what some chief executives have to do, where they come in and instantly have to raise enough money for the next six months.”
The challenge, she says, “will be in shifting the mindset” so that the staff in the shops feel both more ambassadorial and part of a wider charity structure.
While the shops will remain at the forefront of the charity’s income generation, like much of the charity retail sector they have been severely affected by the pandemic – and by the rise of apps that enable people to sell unwanted items online and generate a profit for themselves. Across the whole charity retail sector, the quantity of goods received has risen over the past two years, but quality has dropped.
Gordon plans to explore how FARA could expand its donor database and communications with the public. A key part of the strategy will be connecting the sizable Romanian population in London with the charity’s work, she says – and working with the charity in Romania to develop in-country fundraising opportunities. A key goal for the next year is to ensure the charity is in a position to run a Christmas campaign in 2022.
It might be a little bit unfair, with her only three months into the role, to ask Gordon where she sees FARA in another 30 years. But within the next five years she hopes to have created a thriving, unified charity that still has committed and engaged staff – but also a more engaged base of supporters who understand the impact of their donations.
“By the end of year one, I’ll have got the frame of the puzzle, and by year five we’ll have filled them all in,” she says.
Nicholson intends to stay on as a trustee for a year, to advise on the situation in Romania, and will continue to be involved in the frontline work, as well as representing the charity where needed and speaking to potential donors.
“They’re replacing me with quite a few people,” she says, with a grin of surprise – and just a little twinkle of pride.
For her part, Gordon is conscious of the level of trust Nicholson has shown in her.
“Jane’s sheer determination to keep going has made her who she is today, and the organisation, and I’m really aware of what a big step it is to hand it over,” she says. “It’s a really big privilege to have the opportunity.”