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To celebrate June being Pride Month, we’re shining a spotlight on one of our pro bono clients, Opening Doors. Opening Doors is the largest UK charity providing activities, events, information and support services specifically for lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, queer, non-binary and gender fluid (LGBTQ+) people over 50.

It’s a membership organization that provides regular social opportunities and events to help LGBTQ+ people over 50 develop networks, communities and create friendships, tackling isolation. In this blog we interview Jonathan Buckerfield, Head of Fundraising and Communications about the great work Opening Doors does all year round, and how corporates can more meaningfully support LGBTQ+ communities.

Jonathan Buckerfield, Head of Fundraising and Communications, Opening Doors

Once you’ve finished reading the blog, please make a donation to support some of the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ older people in the UK. £10 will cover the cost of a befriending phone call - often the only call many of their members get each week. 

It’s Pride Month - Happy Pride! Let’s start with your Proudest moment at Opening Doors. Is there a recent moment that really stood out for you, or something you achieved over time as a team, that you’d like to reflect on?

The pandemic was really challenging for us. We work with 2,500+ LGBTQ+ people over-50 around the UK. Even pre-pandemic, many of these people were isolated, vulnerable, and in need of connection. When COVID-19 hit, many were at severe risk of infection, but the idea of them being even more housebound than before was terrifying when considering the impact this would have on their mental health too. 

So, the thing all of us at Opening Doors, our staff and our volunteers, are most proud of from that period is that we were able to provide those people with a sense of connection. This came in the form of helping to provide them with basic necessities, like ensuring their healthcare was taken care of and they had access to food, but also that they were connected with the wider LGBTQ+ community.

Opening Doors has always delivered a befriending service, but pre-pandemic this was an in-person only offering in London. Within days we opened up our telefriending service so LGBTQ+ over-50s across the UK could make a connection with us, with our staff, volunteers and trustees all mucking in to ensure no one was left alone. 75 to 80% of our befriending relationships now take place over the phone.

How has this changed how you’re operating today?

It became even clearer how big a problem isolation is for the older LGBTQ+ population. Within three days of the telefriending service being launched, we had 83 new referrals of people who were in desperate need of that connection. And of those 83 people, only two were able to name an emergency contact - everyone else was completely alone.

This has been an issue we have been working hard to tackle post-pandemic. We joined forces with Clarity around a year ago specifically to help raise awareness of this challenge by platforming community voices so the country would understand the unique position LGBTQ+ over-50s are in.

Opening Doors members at London Pride (Photo credit: Sydney McCourt)

What is Opening Doors’ current focus? 

Isolation and loneliness have so many different forms so connecting with these communities and unpacking what it means for each individual is vital. For example, many LGBTQ+ people don’t have access to the same support networks as their straight cis counterparts, like kids and grandkids. This means they need external support with things we all face as we get older, like navigating the NHS and social care services.

As part of this, we’re taking a stand to challenge damaging stereotypes affecting our community. Using the healthcare example, as LGBTQ+ people age they’re terrified that when receiving care their gender identity or sexuality may not be understood, respected or recognised. This means for many they feel forced back into the closet and can’t be their authentic self in these extremely vulnerable settings, because of society’s prejudices and discrimination.

We’re raising awareness to counter these issues with our comms, but also run training with organizations in the health and social care sectors to help them better understand the needs of LGBTQ+ people over-50. We also deliver ‘Pride in Care’, our quality standard marking where we’ve worked with organizations to assess what systems, programs and policies they have in place to ensure they’re open and supportive of our communities. We also interview their staff to understand their views ahead of providing recommendations on how the organization can improve. 

This is all part of our wider mission to not just provide support to older LGBTQ+ people, but intrinsically change the services that they rely on as they age to ensure they’re fit for purpose and offer the standard of care and respect they deserve.

As Opening Doors’ Head of Fundraising, which includes leading on corporate partnerships, what do you believe are the most meaningful ways that organizations can support the LGBTQ+ community?

Our strongest corporate partnerships are built on honesty and transparency. We’re a small charity so money is always helpful. We rely on the generosity of corporations alongside trusts, individuals and foundations. But we recognize that partnerships need to be beneficial to both sides. 

We find that encouraging volunteering within our corporate partners is especially impactful and builds relationships with the whole organization. Employees can connect with our members, hear their stories, and truly understand the huge value their company is having on the LGBTQ+ over-50 community with its support. Speaking with someone who was in the first pride march and being able to thank them for what they’ve done and celebrate them is such a powerful moment for many of our volunteers.

As well, we speak with many of our corporate partners about how they can support some of our most discriminated against community members. For example, how can the power of the business community have the back of our trans siblings who are suffering because of the hate they’re receiving from a challenging media landscape. 

In this challenging environment, can organizations say ‘no comment’ in response to these issues or do they need to have a view?

This Pride Month I’ve noticed increased silence from organizations on LGBTQ+ issues. There’s been concern from our community on pinkwashing in the past, especially around Pride Month, where corporations will turn their logo into the Pride flag but won’t follow up with tangible activity to make a positive change. This year, in many cases we’re not even seeing that performative allyship which is worrying because if we’re not in an environment that lets people express those views we’ve actually taken a step back.

Can you give any examples of corporations that have been great partners that are role models for the wider business community?

We work with so many fantastic corporate partners. Two that come to mind are RPC (Reynolds Porter Chamberlain), a law firm, and Lloyds Banking Group. RPC will be with us on the bus at London Pride, and have provided us with free legal support on an ongoing basis which is so important to help us look after our community.

Lloyds Banking Group helped us deliver Silver Pride in October last year which celebrates older LGBTQ+ people. Last year we organized a tea dance in Walthamstow (East London). This gave the community an opportunity to line dance and ball dance which, especially for many who don’t get to leave the house often, was such a freeing experience. We can’t wait to do it again this year.

The tea dance in Walthamstow for Silver Pride (photo credit: Sydney McCourt)

Clarity has supported Opening Doors pro bono for around a year now. What kind of work are we doing together, and what would you say has driven the most positive impact?

We’ve hit a fantastic groove with Clarity over the last twelve months. Our work together has focused on driving media and press awareness and we’ve generated some fantastic coverage together.

The piece I’m most proud of is an article in the Metro from one of our members, Dr Angela Traill, who tells her story about transitioning as an older woman. She speaks so authentically, without sugar coating what she’s been through, which means it’s really inspiring to those going through a similar journey. It also helps change hearts and minds around what trans people still experience just to be their authentic selves.

We got such fantastic feedback about the piece from the public and even the newspaper itself.

What advice would you give to people who want to join the LGBTQ+ charity sector and make a tangible difference?

The most important starting point is through volunteering. Get involved and make an effort to understand the people you want to support. Also, focus on organizations that really mean something to you. For me, I’ve always wanted to support marginalized people who don’t necessarily have a voice. Prior to working with the over-50 LGBTQ+ community I supported those struggling with addiction and homelessness.

Working in the charity sector also means recognizing that you’re not going to be paid a huge salary, but it’s significantly more rewarding to see the real difference you’re making to peoples’ lives. You’ll wake up every day knowing you’re doing the right thing, and no doubt will be working with a brilliant group of people who feel the same way - and that’s not just staff, it’s volunteers and the people you’re supporting too.

Are there any final thoughts you want to leave with us?

One of the key things for Opening Doors to give out as a message is that Pride isn’t just June, or July 1st for the London Pride March. It’s all year round. LGBTQ+ people don’t just exist during that month, we’re here all the time. And, the members we work with are struggling all year round. So looking at how you can support LGBTQ+ people 365 days a year is so important and is why having this conversation, speaking to this audience and asking people how they can help, is really important to us.

If you’ve been inspired by Jonathan’s words and the work of Opening Doors, please remember to make a donation to support some of the most vulnerable LGBTQ+ older people in the UK.

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