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The fight to save cash-strapped CanTeen

Shocked at pre-Christmas layoffs and a new partnership with Australia, a campaign is building to “save” CanTeen. But the charity’s board says that’s what it’s already doing. David Williams reports.

It was the worst of times.

Aucklander Bal Dhillon’s daughter, Jasmine, was having chemotherapy for leukaemia, her husband, Harbinder, shut down his business to look after Jasmine, and their two other children were struggling. Jasmine, 16, had lost friends and wasn’t attending school during her treatment at Starship Children’s Hospital. “She was so sick,” Bal says.

Miranda, a youth worker for cancer charity CanTeen, conscientiously checked in. She called even though her messages weren’t returned; turned up again even though she’d been told to go.

Jasmine reached a point where she didn’t want to go on. “She’d just had enough of the treatment, she’d had enough of being poked and prodded ... she was in a really bad place,” Bal says. “When you hear your child say to you, ‘I don’t want to live anymore, mum, I want to die’, you do not know what that does to you. You’re so helpless.

“That’s when you reach out to people like Miranda at CanTeen and say, ‘I need help; I don’t know what to do’.”

Jasmine pulled through – although it took about a year for her to trust Miranda. The 19-year-old is in remission and attending university. Bal says without Miranda her family might have lost Jasmine.

What needs saving now, Bal says, is CanTeen itself. Last week the charity’s board announced it was laying off 17 staff, leaving just 16, and shutting eight offices. It is also partnering with CanTeen Australia to expand its services to a more affordable online platform, including counselling.

String of deficits, staff turnover

CanTeen, which relies on community support and donations, helps youngsters aged between 13 and 24 dealing with cancer. It provides someone to talk to, connects peers, runs activities and workshops, helps people with their grief. The website says: “CanTeen takes care of things like topping up your phone, getting you to appointments or the food situation in your cupboard so you don’t need to stress.”

The charity’s finances have been poor for years. It has run continuous deficits since 2013. (In spite of this, its wage bill continued to rise, to $2.4 million this year, for 25 full-timers and seven part-timers.) There’s been turnover at the top, recently, too. Chief executive Bruce Pilbrow left in late 2016 and five board members resigned last year, including chair Dion Mortensen.

A predominantly new board – a mixture of independent adult professionals and young people who had been supported by CanTeen – led by Auckland’s Carol Scholes, a 30-year veteran in commercial and not-for profit management, swept in early this year. CanTeen refocused its fundraising on direct donations, as mechandise sales declined.

The board started asking questions. The biggest ones, Scholes says, were could it afford to continue as it was and should its main support method, heavy on face-to-face contact, change.

Chief executive Claudine Young left in August and, soon after, the annual audit of the accounts started. The news wasn’t good. It made a $670,000 deficit – its worst ever.

In late November, CanTeen workers were called to a meeting. They were told it was running out of money and swift action was needed or the doors would close. A Facebook post from November 30 told CanTeen supporters it was considering redundancies and creating an online support service to complement its regular programmes.

CanTeen’s annual meeting was called for Monday of last week. Little more than a dozen people turned up. It was only then that members realised the scale of the changes. There were tears and walkouts.

These people had relied on CanTeen to help them through the worst period of their lives, to pick them up when they were down. Suddenly, this organisation that meant so much to them was changing without their input. When they were down they asked CanTeen for help. Ironically, when the charity itself was down, board members talked amongst themselves.

“Not all young people want access to an online platform, not at all, but some do.” – Carol Scholes

The latest figures from the Ministry of Health’s cancer registry show there were 24,086 new registrations in 2016, of which 322 were aged under 25. Seventy-three of those young people had leukaemia. Worryingly, a study released earlier this year New Zealand’s cancer survival rates in adolescents and young adults – particularly Māori and Pacific Island youths – are lower than other wealthy countries.

CanTeen’s services are clearly needed. But it can’t ignore its finances.

The charity’s accounts reveal a whopping 36 percent decline in revenue over five years – from $6.3 million in 2013 to a smidgeon over $4 million this year. Despite having reserves of $1.2 million, Scholes says there was a real possibility that without drastic changes Canteen might have had to close its doors in February or, at the latest, June. (It owns a building but Scholes said it couldn’t be sold fast enough to solve the cashflow problem.)

Part of the problem could be competition. By one estimate, New Zealand has 27,000 charities, which works out to about 170 people per charity. Across the ditch, in Australia, there are 440 people per charity, meaning there are more people to support each one. Scholes says there are something like 97 cancer charities. “We’re all competing for money.”

But it wasn’t just about dollars. The board was concerned about youth workers operating in the provinces by themselves without adequate support. From a safety standpoint, that’s “not ideal”, Scholes says.

There was also no online support. Scholes: “We work with young people and we have no online platform. And not all young people want access to an online platform, not at all, but some do. All we do is use Facebook groups.”

Before deciding its future path, CanTeen’s board talked to the Child Cancer Foundation. But it chose to partner with CanTeen Australia. (The Aussie charity is a financial powerhouse, with income of $A33.5 million this year.) It already had an online platform for young people with cancer, Scholes says. “Frankly we would never have the resources to do that ourselves – and they already had one. And they’re very committed to make sure that CanTeen in New Zealand doesn’t fall, and that’s why they’ve been helping us.”

CanTeen Australia has online counsellors. The New Zealand charity will recruit its own in the New Year. Scholes: “They already have a lot of leadership camps and a whole lot of leadership programmes that dovetail exceptionally well with ours. So we can piggyback off theirs while we rebuild.”

The plan is for CanTeen to be financially sustainable by 2021, when it will hopefully be able to push into the regions again.

Wary of the web

People intimately familiar with the charity aren’t convinced about the changes, especially the online component.

One CanTeen insider, who didn’t want to be named, calls the new model “rubbish”, adding that young people with cancer won’t warm to someone they don’t know. “They still need someone to just play cards with them and find out how they are and make sure that they’re OK,” they say.

“It’s like they’re fixing a problem that’s not even broken, in regards to the way we work. I get it, we have no money, but what’s the point in changing the model when the model works?”

CanTeen’s Gisborne office closed last week. Local member Elena Pyatt, 23, lost her 15-year-old brother Jakob to aggressive bone cancer, osteosarcoma, in March 2016. The situation was compounded because at the same time her dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Pyatt got help from a CanTeen youth worker to get counselling and the right medication. “If all of the help I got was online I would be dead,” she says. People gravitate to people they know, Pyatt says. “You’re not going to talk to a social worker that you’ve met twice about some of the worst things in your life.”

Auckland’s Bal Dhillon asks where young people diagnosed with cancer are meant to go for help in the regions where branches have been closed – often places with limited resources. “What makes them think that young people with cancer are going to reach out from help online? I think that’s absolutely insane.”

Online opens the door

CanTeen board chair Scholes reiterates that online is additional to its existing (though pared back) services. She says young people will be assessed and those who need more support will be introduced to other people in their area or be recommended for one-on-one intensive support – perhaps from CanTeen or another agency.

“One of the things that people seem to be missing is that we have not been all over New Zealand,” she says. “There are heaps of areas where we offered no support. What online does is it opens that door.”

Can the new service be as good if there’s not the face-to-face time? Scholes points out the economic reality – there won’t be as much face-to-face with a youth worker because CanTeen can’t afford it. It’s not like the charity is pulling out of the regions to spend money elsewhere, she says. “We’re literally saying we haven’t got enough money to pay for people.”

Putting aside disputes over the substance, what appears to have offended many CanTeen members is the style of the announcement; that they were presented with a solution without having any input.

Scholes says that’s partly an accident of timing. The financial situation only became clear late in the year and a balls-up with the first attempt to hold an AGM. (There was no quorum.) CanTeen also had an obligation to consult its staff first.

But another aspect, she says, is about “messaging”. Firstly, to the parents of sick children – “because they’re already dealing with a heap of stuff” – and also with the public. “You need to be aware, if you go out [with your financial circumstances] then people might not donate back”.

Scholes: “We just had to pick the one that was going to have the best long-term future for CanTeen and was going to cause the least impact.”

That riles Auckland’s Dhillon. “They had no right to make that decision for us,” she says. “Just like we didn’t have a choice that our child was going to get cancer, now we don’t have a choice to say what help we can have for our children that have got cancer.”

“They have done so much for our children we’re just so grateful to them. And we are not going to stand by and let this happen.” – Bal Dhillon

There’s a feeling among some CanTeen members that more publicity would have helped – that organisations or philanthropists could have been approached for a loan or bailout while the finer details of its financial strategy were worked out. There are also rumblings about some regions trying to fund their own youth worker and whispers of an attempted overthrow of the board.

Dhillon is grateful for what CanTeen has done for her family – which makes her all the more determined. “We are not going to stand by and let this happen.” She believes shutting the regional offices didn’t need to happen; that a public plea for money would have done the trick. “New Zealand comes together when things go wrong. That’s what we’re about.”

Gisborne’s Pyatt says members are angry the board didn’t hear their voices. “As a member-led organisation, they did not consult any members,” she says. “It may not be reasonable to keep the service as it was. But how about we actually come up with a long-term plan to get those services back in place?”

On Sunday, a Save CanTeen social media group was started by Auckland’s McKay Carroll, a former president of the now-closed East Cape branch. The group now has more than 300 members. Initially Carroll said he wanted to challenge the board’s decision but by last night he had changed his mind. “The most important part right now is for us to band together and come up with a viable solution that benefits everyone.”

CanTeen chair Scholes says the board has acted with the best intentions and decisions haven’t been made lightly. But she’s adamant CanTeen won’t take money to pay a salary for the next six months, only to find it can’t raise enough and they’ll have to be laid off. It needs a more sustainable model, she says.

“That is what we’re trying to do, is save it, we’re not closing it,” she says. “Quite frankly, it’s taken a huge brave pill to do what we’re doing because any change means there’s an impact on young people and their families. I don’t know why some of these decisions haven’t been made earlier. All I know is what we have discovered is that we just have to do it now otherwise we literally run out of money.”

Dhillon counters with a very human argument – that CanTeen’s service is essential, not just for young people but for parents, some of whom are only just holding on by a thread. “That’s when these youth workers come in and they play their magic, that’s what they do. We cannot lose them.”

For some, of course, that’s already happened. The anonymous worker says young people with cancer might travel to a main centre, like Auckland, for treatment. “When they go back home, the one organisation they can turn to for support won’t be there anymore.”

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