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Charity

Watch humanist Naomi Philips describe her work in the charity sector and her motivations
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I’ve worked in the not-for-profit sector for around 15 years, and I’ve worked for a range of different charitable organisations, so I have worked at Humanists UK, where I lead their policy and public affairs work, very much geared to working on equality and human rights issues. I’ve also worked at Mind, the national mental health charity, campaigning for better health and care and social rights for people with mental health problems, and trying to end unnecessary discrimination.
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I’ve also worked for Breast Cancer Now, which is the largest breast cancer charity, really trying to make things better for women who have got breast cancer, and to try to improve their access to drugs, so they can live better lives, longer lives with their families and loved ones. And that’s really led me to the work that I do now at the British Red Cross, which is a humanitarian organisation, totally secular, supporting people in a way that’s completely neutral, impartial and independent from any other organisation, and really trying to meet the needs of people in crisis.
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So I head up the department which basically looks at public policy, UK public policy and advocacy, across all of our operational footprints, so we work on issues from everything from refugees, asylum, vulnerable migrants, through to health and social care, first aid and also UK emergency response. The work that I do particularly tries to affect public policy change and wider scale practice, so while services might address a smaller number of people and meet people’s needs directly, the work that I do, I feel like I can try to affect change at scale, so, for example, if you are successful in changing a piece of legislation, actually the impact on that could have on sort of tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people.
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I think that the work that I do really allows me to live out and express my humanist beliefs and values. In fact, somebody once described to me a humanist as being a non-religious humanitarian, and I think that’s really true, because actually, what I really care about are meeting the needs of individual people, helping create the conditions for people to live really good lives of their own choosing, and to be free from unnecessary oppression or unequal treatment, for example.
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I’m very conscious that this is the one life that I will have and that anybody else will have, and I find that really, really motivating because I’m absolutely driven, not only to try and live a good life for me and my own family, but to try and help to create little conditions for other people to flourish in their own lives as well. And so, the work that I do, which is trying to affect public policy and practice on a large scale, I believe that that’s something that can really help people, lots of people, and that’s something I find very fulfilling.
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I think it’s probably true that a humanist, specifically a humanist organisation will have a particular charitable purpose and will have a particular need, especially if it’s a membership organisation, to respond to the kind of campaigns that its members might want to see, for example, against faith schools, and for a more equal school system, which we know that lots of non-religious people, and, in fact, actually lots of religious people do support as well, so those secular kind of causes.
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But I would say there’s probably a difference in terms of what also individual humanists might do themselves, that they might think about those causes specifically and support them, but actually if you’re a humanist, you’re non-religious, you have potentially a positive outlook on life, you want to make things better for other people, for society as well as yourself, and therefore, might well be interested in the kind of causes that might have a positive impact on other people and on society. So you could quite easily see that people would be campaigning for human rights, for fairer politics, for environmental causes, and so on.
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So I don’t think that I would say that any kind of non-religious person or humanist should be pigeonholed, or assume that they’d be very limited in what they care about. Actually, it would be just as diverse as anybody else, but very much driven by the idea of having a better society, which has the conditions for human flourishing.
Naomi Phillips has worked in the non-profit sector for fifteen years. She has worked in policy, research, and campaigns for Mind, and Breast Cancer Now, and is currently Director of Policy and Advocacy at The British Red Cross. She is a trustee of Humanists UK.
Question: Is it OK for charities that support people in need to have a specific religious ethos or should they be secular?
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