Chris Mould, social entrepreneur: a question of responsibility

The director of food bank charity the Trussell Trust is adamant it will not become an arm of the welfare system

If rapid growth is the benchmark, then Chris Mould is indisputably one of the UK's top social entrepreneurs. His emergency food charity, the Trussell Trust, with its unfashionable Christian mission to tackle poverty and feed the hungry, has become, in a slightly unnerving way, one of the great social business success stories of the austerity era.

In 2004, Trussell had one food bank. By 2009, the number had crept up to 50. Then, as recession took hold, came the explosion. By April 2012, 201 food banks had come on stream, at a rate of two every seven days. Since then, four Trussell franchises have launched each week. There are now 255 (168 are already providing food to the public; the remainder are currently being set up). The charity's target of 500 UK food banks by 2016 now looks ridiculously cautious.

From being practically unknown in the UK, food banks have become, in the last two years, a grimly iconic indicator of growing poverty. In 2008, Trussell fed 28,000 people. In 2011-12, 128,000 people got food parcels from the trust. This year, the figure is expected to rise to more than 200,000.

Mould is proud of Trussell's growth as a testament to the soundness of its franchise design, and the commitment of the volunteers who run the food banks. But he is uncomfortable with the underlying misery that has spurred that expansion – the "massive change in the number of people in the UK who are living very vulnerable lives, relative to the lives they used to live".

The growth of Trussell food banks also shines an uncomfortable light on the state's retreat from welfare, and the failures and cruelty of the parts of the safety net that remain. The charity's data shows that its expanding client base is increasingly low-paid working families who can't make ends meet. They are people impoverished by benefit delays and sanctions, or those refused crisis loans. There is a surge in demand during school holidays, when free school meals are not available.

Mould helped build Trussell during the Labour boom years, when it was conceived as a modest local complement to the welfare state. He says it was "providing short-term food relief to people in crisis while the state was given a chance to get its act together". It was classic voluntary sector innovation: spotting people falling through the gaps, and moving quickly to catch them before guiding them to more formal help.

The trust drew up strict rules to ensure it did not get dragged into doing the state's job. It would only give out food parcels to clients who come with a voucher given to them by accredited local welfare professionals – teachers, GPs or social workers. Recipients would be limited to three food parcels – each contains enough food to feed a family for a week – before the state must take over. Mould says that without this discipline, the Trussell model is unsustainable. It was designed expressly to prevent it becoming absorbed into state welfare provision, as has happened in the US and Canada.

But he admits austerity is putting Trussell's "emergency food only" principle under increasing pressure. The sheer volume of demand puts a strain on its own food supply (which relies on donations arranged through local churches, schools and businesses, often via bin collections outside supermarkets). In addition, spending cuts and the hollowing out of state welfare, he acknowledges, increasingly leaves Trussell in danger of becoming a de facto substitute for state help, rather than a junior partner.

Just over a year ago, Trussell's Coventry food bank was overwhelmed after 23 local families, all from eastern Europe, who had had their benefits stopped, turned up without warning. The call went out to other network members, and more than 1,000kg of food was shipped in practically overnight from food banks in Gloucester and farther afield. The trust prides itself on being a way of "local people helping local people", says Mould, but the incident demonstrated how problems can't always be solved within town boundaries.

The trust is increasingly alert to potential abuse by partner agencies, a handful of whom have cynically referred people to Trussell as a way of protecting their own shrinking budgets. Mould says some have now been banned from issuing vouchers. Trust volunteers also face dilemmas. The trust's mission is defined in the Bible, Matthew chapter 25: "For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat", and staff can feel morally uncomfortable restricting food provision in the face of desperate need. As one unnamed volunteer, quoted in Trussell's own 2011 evaluation report reflected: "Matthew 25 doesn't say 'When somebody's reached their third food voucher, you stop feeding them'."

Mould admits the trust is, in a few cases, "stretching" its rules and helping food bank clients for longer, not least because the retreating welfare state can be so slow. "When we first started, for the first few years we were saying people needed between eight days and two weeks before the welfare system could get solutions in place, if they had lost their job or a significant crisis had occurred. We wouldn't say eight days any more. We are talking two to six weeks. That is a deterioration."

Trussell faces a fresh dilemma with the imminent cuts to the social fund, which gives crisis loans and grants to vulnerable people. From April it will be run by local councils, which will have a fraction of the current budget to distribute. Some authorities are seeking to invest in Trussell food banks to help them cope with an expected deluge of families hit by welfare cuts. Mould says he is open to what he calls "strategic investment" from local councils to help build food-bank capacity, but Trussell will not run council contracts to feed people. "We should be taking help where we can, but we won't be becoming part of the state," he insists.

Getting too close to the state, he adds, would wreck Trussell's food-donor base. "Our volunteers will say: 'I didn't volunteer to work for the government, I volunteered because I want to help'."

Mould, a former NHS chief executive, is scathing about how the state can coldly impose benefit penalties on vulnerable individuals while "knowing that no one will actually die of starvation because someone else – the voluntary sector – is looking after them". In some ways, Trussell embodies the government's "big society", but Mould himself is a member of the Labour party.

Trussell had good relations with Conservative politicians in opposition, but these days, Mould notes, he is having "less of a conversation with government". Meanwhile, the charity is becoming a more vocal critic of austerity and its consequences. Things will get worse, Mould predicts, and Trussell will continue to help as best it can. But there are limits. He says: "What we are increasingly concerned about is that we don't take on a responsibility for the deeper, longer term resolution of poverty."

Curriculum vitae

Age 53.

Status Married with four daughters.

Lives Salisbury.

Education Royal grammar school, High Wycombe; Magdalen College, Oxford University, BA modern history; London School of Economics, MSc (Econ) social policy and planning in developing countries.

Career 2010-present: partner, the Shaftesbury Partnership; 2007-present; director, the Trussell Trust (executive chairman since 2011); 2004-10: independent consultant, Transformation and Strategic Change; 2001-03: chief executive, Centrex (the central police training and development authority); 1992-2001: district general manager, Salisbury health authority and chief executive, Salisbury healthcare NHS trust; 1988‑92: general manager then chief executive, Community and Mental Health Services, South Bedfordshire; 1982-88: NHS planner and hospital manager, London and Southend.

Public life Chair: Foundation for Social Change and Inclusion (a Bulgarian NGO), FranchisingWorks Ltd and Resolving Chaos; trustee: the Trussell Trust and the Ffald-y-Brenin Trust.

Interests Family, running, mountaineering, theology.


Patrick Butler

The GuardianTramp

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