From Alzheimer’s and diabetes to prosthetic limbs, local medical research projects have been chosen by Freemasons across the UK to receive grants of up to £100,000. Peter Watts finds out how the voting worked
In 2015, the Masonic Samaritan Fund (MSF) decided to mark its 25th anniversary with an unprecedented exercise. It created the Silver Jubilee Research Fund, worth £1 million, to distribute to medical research charities and then invited masons across the UK to vote for the organisations they felt should receive a share of the funds. Charities were divided regionally so Freemasons could choose from those based locally to them.
‘It’s the first time any of the masonic charities have been proactive in this way,’ says John McCrohan, Grants Director and Deputy Chief Executive of the MSF. ‘We are conscious of the support we get from the masonic brethren and wanted to get them more actively involved in choosing who we would offer support to.’
Such was the success of the project that in September 2015 the MSF announced that following votes from more than 5,000 Freemasons in 10 regional areas, 13 charities from across the UK would receive a combined £1.13 million. With masons from all over England and Wales allowed to vote, charities receiving grants included Alzheimer’s Research UK in Oxford, Tenovus Cancer Care in Cardiff and Yorkshire Cancer Research in Sheffield. ‘It really helped people to get engaged because it was happening on their doorstep, so was something they could have a view on,’ says McCrohan of the voting process.
Causes close to home
George Royle, Provincial Grand Almoner in South Wales, where Tenovus Cancer Care has been awarded £89,000, echoes McCrohan’s sentiments. ‘We liked the fact members could vote, and were behind the process from the start. Tenovus is a household name in Wales and has been going since 1943 when 10 businessmen set it up in order to fund projects across the local area,’ he says of the charity, which will use its grant to research immunotherapy treatment.
‘It is based in Cardiff but has mobile units that save a lot of travelling for people who live in the Valleys.’
Every charity that applied for funding had to go into detail about the research it was planning, which was then analysed by the MSF board of experts.
‘We began by approaching every charity that was a member of the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), which is around 130 charities,’ says McCrohan. ‘We wrote to each one, inviting them to apply and letting them know we were looking to support high-quality medical research. That meant they already met a very high standard in terms of peer review and evaluation.’
Just over 60 charities applied, and the MSF panel shortlisted 30 for the ballot, to be voted on by Freemasons. As well as drawing applications from a range of areas – from combating cancer and heart disease to designing prosthetic limbs – the MSF wanted to involve charities from across the country. ‘That was the unknown,’ says McCrohan. ‘We could have received all our applications from Oxford and London, two of the established centres of excellence, but we got applications from far and wide – Bristol, Southampton, Newcastle, Manchester, Liverpool and Cardiff. We had enough numbers to break it up regionally, which meant masons could vote for charities that were either based locally or had research taking place in their region.’
The power of engagement
McCrohan was pleased at the way masons responded to the initiative, particularly as the entire process took place electronically, via email, newsletters and links to websites where masons could read about how the charities intended to use the grants. ‘We wanted to challenge the perception that because Freemasons are an older generation, they might not engage with online information,’ he says.
The Jubilee fund has also raised awareness of the work that the MSF undertakes to help masons and non-masons alike. ‘Our non-masonic medical research complements the support that we give to individual masons with their health and care needs,’ says McCrohan. ‘The hope is that our support of medical research will benefit the whole of society and not just the masonic community.’
Allan Peates is Provincial Grand Almoner for Oxfordshire, where a grant of £100,000 has been awarded to Alzheimer’s Research UK. He points out how the Jubilee fund is a chance for the MSF to talk publicly about its work. ‘The MSF does a brilliant job with individual masons and their families, but a lot is unseen because people don’t always like to admit they received a grant,’ he says. ‘If you need a procedure the MSF will fund it, but the recipient won’t necessarily want people to know where the money came from.’
Allan is delighted that Alzheimer’s Research UK came top of the Jubilee poll in his region. ‘We had 62 per cent of people in our area vote for the Alzheimer’s research project,’ he says. ‘Alzheimer’s has to be at the top of our priorities, along with prostate cancer, and the charity is going to use the money to try and develop a blood test for early detection.’
As a result of the Jubilee fund, the MSF has raised its profile among the medical research community, and McCrohan hopes this will bring rewards further down the line. ‘We’ve become more aware of the research that is going on and more connected to that community. We want to be well known within the funding sector so people can come to us.’
Above all though, McCrohan hopes that masons will get involved in similar enterprises. ‘We are privileged to be entrusted with their funds and it’s only right we consult them on how they are distributed. It’s a model we’d like to repeat in the future. There are a lot of Freemasons who will never come to Great Queen Street in London, so their experience of Freemasonry is a very local one. This allows them to contribute to the way the charities based in London operate. Hopefully that’s been a positive experience.’