Starting a charity: 9 lessons to share

  • Selina Hales set up Refuweegee in October 2015 to help welcome refugees to Glasgow
  • Creating a charity can present many challenges, for both the organisation and your personal life
  • Hales shares nine lessons she’s learnt along the way, to help others succeed with their own charitable ambitions

As part of a new series taking a closer look at the charity and voluntary sector in Scotland, we catch up with the founder of Refuweegee, who shares her insight into setting up and running a new charity.

Selina Hales started Refuweegee in October 2015, in order to help refugees arriving in Glasgow receive a warm welcome and the assistance they need. Here, she shares some of the valuable lessons she’s learnt along the way.

1. It’s not about setting up a charity – it’s about meeting a need

I never intended to set up a charity, I just found something that I was passionate about. There were people arriving in Glasgow needing practical help and to feel welcome. I wanted to fill that gap.

We found a way to bring people together to create welcome packs that give people the things they need such as warm clothes and toiletries, as well as a personal message welcoming them to our city in true Glaswegian style.

2. Get help, make friends

My background is in the Chamber of Commerce. So, my first questions were: Who can I speak with? Who has things that are useful? How can we get them?

That’s what I love about Refuweegee – we didn’t set out to apply for money to buy things, but instead assumed that there must be people and businesses that have things they’d like to offer.

For example, we use businesses and charity shops as drop-off points for donations and link with other charities and the council to distribute our welcome packs. That’s a big thing we’ve learnt – you can’t do everything yourself.

3. Make a human connection

As well as collecting donations, we ask people to write a letter welcoming a refugee to Glasgow. This letter writing encourages people to engage in a very different way – it’s immediately personal.

The feedback we get from people receiving the letters is just incredible. That’s really special to us.

4. Find a positive way to inspire people into action

At Refuweegee, we don’t focus on telling the negative, overwhelming stories about refugees. Sometimes that just makes people feel hopeless and unmotivated. Instead, we want people to take action, and harness the Glaswegian pride of being a friendly and welcoming city. We offer a chance for them to do something positive in the face of something difficult.

5. Be clear about what you’re asking for

People just want to help, so they will donate all sorts of things. There have been times that we’ve been so overwhelmed with donations that the time taken to sort through them has been a distraction from what we’re really trying to achieve.

We’ve learned from that, and now we are very specific about what we’re looking for and display that on our website.

6. Be willing to take a risk

Two months after starting the charity, it was obvious that I’d have to stop my full-time job to make Refuweegee a success. That was the first big risk – I have a mortgage and a family, so it represented a real loss of financial security.

Taking on our first member of staff was a further risk, as I was conscious about becoming responsible for another person.

But, it’s all worked out and I’ve never looked back. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still anxieties, but you have to be able to overcome them.

7. Make the most of your Board

I’m incredibly lucky to have such a supportive and skilled Board. When I’m not sure about something, it makes a big difference to have them to talk to. They give a balanced perspective on the risks, share the responsibilities, and ensure I’m not making decisions alone.

8. Don’t feed the trolls

Given that people have pretty strong views on refugees, we expected to get some negative attention online. But when people are downright abusive, we’ve found the best policy is to block them or ignore them.

However, there’s usually some room for a sensible debate, and we find that plenty of other people online are willing to counteract any negative arguments and stick up for us.

9. Rethink your work-life balance

I thought that quitting my job to work with Refuweegee full-time would give me a better work-life balance. Little did I know I’d be working harder than I ever have in my life!

That said, I’ve also learnt that there’s not such a divide between work and home life. Our family life has been enriched by our involvement in Refuweegee. My kids play with kids who have recently arrived in Glasgow and we often all have dinner together.

It doesn’t feel like I’m juggling lots of things. Instead, it just feels like we’ve built this amazing new aspect into our lifestyle.