We grow great by dreams… Some of us let these great dreams die, but others nourish and protect them; nurse them through bad days till they bring them to the sunshine and light which comes always to those who sincerely hope that their dreams will come true.
Woodrow Wilson, 28th US President
Great visions require great people to carry them forward, but all too often, the adage that we die and our dreams die with us is true. The Story of Barnardo's shows that this need not be the case. 'Dr' Thomas Barnardo never qualified as a doctor, wherein lies a tale of intrigue and deception, yet was a man of vision with a charismatic personality. He had a passion for the vulnerable that enabled him to found a charity that has become a world-leader, helping over 100,000 disadvantaged children each year. However, Barnardo was also plainly human, and in spite of a strong evangelical faith could be intolerant, ill tempered and untruthful. Perhaps this was not too different from many Old Testament characters on whom the vision of a chosen people and Promised Land was built.
I have great admiration for the author for undertaking what seems an impossible task of writing an entertaining, informative and inspiring biography of an organisation. I read this book with high expectations; as a paediatrician, I was aware of Barnardo's work but knew little about the organisation and its founder. Whilst I have learnt much, it was a struggle to do so. Apart from the great photos, this book is not easy bedtime reading. Indeed, I am unclear at whom it is targeted.
Fletcher starts with a useful sociological study of the nature of charitable giving and historical changes in welfare provision. He then supplies a brief biography of Barnardo, followed by the history of his organisation from 1905 to 2005, set in the context of the changes of the 20th and early 21st centuries. As with the man himself, the organisation has not been without fault, but has grown and adapted to changing needs and perceptions to maintain its focus on helping vulnerable children.
In the light of the Victoria Climbie inquiry, the Children Act 2004 and the Green Paper Every Child Matters, the book finishes with a look to the future and Barnardo's UK Agenda. Reflecting back on the nature of welfare provision through the charitable sector, the author leaves us with rather a frustrating set of questions that are aimed in part at Barnardo's, and in part at government and other agencies. Perhaps one purpose of this book is to raise these questions. In that spirit, I shall leave you with a few:
- Where should the balance between state and charity provision of welfare services lie?
- Are there too many children's charities?
- Can the slow decrease in the total number of people in Britain giving to charity be reversed?
- How should Barnardo's (or any other charity) divide its resources between front line childcare, political and social campaigning, and research?