The Society was founded as the Royal Society for the Support of Indigent Gentlewomen of Scotland. This was very much a cause of its time, intended to support older single women who found themselves without family and caught between the “rock” of poverty (often because their fathers or brothers had failed to provide for them), and the “hard place” of rigid Victorian social expectations that made it virtually impossible for them to earn a living, far less make provision for their old age.
For many years the Society operated with a low profile while continuing to support single “gentlewomen”. While these beneficiaries remained in very genuine need, the tensions inherent in the Society’s historic but now obviously too narrow focus became unsustainable and, after some years wrestling with the legal implications of the changes to our core objects, the Society’s Royal Charter was updated in 2014 and our name changed to its current form. This change in Charter also gave the Society both a much broader remit to support single women in Scotland, and very considerable flexibility in how it goes about doing so. However, we have retained our focus on:
- Supporting older women as they are very commonly an overlooked group in society with few alternate sources of support; and
- Providing that support through direct cash payments as we recognise that all our beneficiaries have different priorities in their lives, and cash support affords them the dignity to choose how they use their money.
Our current core grant to beneficiaries is £120 per month. This accounts for the majority of our grant expenditure, but we disburse some additional funds to beneficiaries on the lowest incomes and to those who face specific challenges, or who are hoping to take advantage of particular opportunities. Last year, the Society also disbursed close to £230,000 in additional grants to help with the cost-of-living crisis.
For some beneficiaries, the Society’s support may be long term (subject to income and savings limits), but for others it may be shorter term to help them through a difficult period in their lives (for example after divorce or redundancy) or during a time of change (for example while returning to education to enhance their qualifications or while transitioning to self-employment). We are also piloting alternative ways of working to increase our impact including:
Providing “financial resilience” advice and support alongside our cash grants for those beneficiaries who need it, so that they can make the most of the opportunity offered to become more financially secure.
Developing partnerships with other Charities who are already supporting women, so that the synergy between their casework and the Society’s direct financial support will result in better outcomes for the women concerned.
The Society’s work is facilitated by a staff team of 7 lead by a Chief Executive appointed in 2020 and all of whom work part-time. Most staff are Caseworkers located across Scotland who both assess applications for support and provide “light touch” advice and support to beneficiaries. Over recent years a number of steps have been taken to modernise our casework including adopting a new CRM platform in 2023 which will bring significant operational flexibility and efficiencies.
The Society is governed by a General Committee of currently 12 Trustees (including the existing Chair). Trustees come from a wide range of backgrounds including a number with financial services expertise (who tend to also serve on our Investments Sub Committee providing oversight of our investments), the charitable and advice sectors (who tend to serve on our Grants Policy Sub Committee) and other professional backgrounds. Currently the General Committee meets 4 times a year and as well as its governance role to oversee the management of the organisation, it also makes many of the decisions on whom the Society should support. However, it should also be noted that there has been an increasing move to formal delegation of these decisions over recent years.
The Society’s investments are managed on a fully delegated, “total return” approach by our professional investment managers (RBC Brewin Dolphin). In addition we also own a town house on Rutland Square in Edinburgh. We are in the process of planning for a renovation of this building in 2024 with a view to (a) increasing returns from it, (b) providing more suitable offices for the Society and (c) potentially offering office space to other women’s charities as a way of both supporting their work and increasing our impact.
Chief Executive, RSSWS