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Interview: Robin Ferris, CEO of Bankuet

02 October 2020

‘I saw an opportunity to disrupt the old donation model that foodbanks used’

Every year, eight million people struggle to put food on the table in the UK, and foodbank use continues to increase exponentially, even more so because of Covid-19. I saw an opportunity to disrupt the old, inefficient donation model that foodbanks used, with technology we all use every day.

Now, donors can give money online or on the phone, while foodbanks can request what they need from us. We use the donations to buy those items in bulk from our grocer partners, and deliver them to the foodbanks. This model became invaluable during lockdown. We had to scale up much quicker than we anticipated: literally overnight.

You can donate at our website: £10 or more on a monthly or one-off basis. We get Gift Aid as well; so we get an extra 25p to spend on items for every £1 you donate. If you’re feeling keener, you can run a fund-raising campaign for us. We’re currently inviting churches and schools to mark Harvest Festival by raising funds for their local foodbanks via Bankuet: it’s safe and effective.

We help foodbanks across the UK, and our donor base is international. We’ve received donations from generous people all over the world. Visitors to our site typically donate to their local foodbank, but you can choose to donate to foodbanks generally.

When I started Bankuet, I prayed a very simple prayer, which was “God, would you use me for your glory.” That’s it. I couldn’t have known that, eight months after launch, we’d be scaling up in the middle of a pandemic, but I dedicated this project to God: “I don’t know where this is going to end up, but I trust you, and will keep pursuing it if you want me to.”

Foodbanks typically stock rice, pasta, and tins, but people need other items, such as toothpaste, UHT milk, and sanitary items. They go online to the Bankuet website, and, much as you would do with your weekly shop, the foodbank orders the items they need when they need them. Special diets are respected and planned for.

Most foodbanks don’t have refrigeration, but, if that changes, we’d be able to supply fresh food, thanks to our direct relationships with grocers.

I’ve been volunteering at Wandsworth foodbank for 18 years now, and it’s been a real privilege. People who use foodbanks are just like you and me. Something happened, like a job loss, or something unexpected like a death or illness, which meant they couldn’t work; or they are working, but they are not paid enough to live on — these are typically people we might find at a foodbank. There’s no “us and them”. With the world as it is, any one of us could find ourselves having to use a foodbank.

You would be referred by Citizens Advice, the DWP, churches, schools, or similar, because you’re in desperate need of basic provisions. You might receive three emergency food parcels to sustain you for a week.

I worked in the entertainment industry for 15 years. My first job was working for the Christian rock band Delirious? at their record label, and went on to jobs with Island Records, Universal Pictures, and the BBC. All of these organisations were embracing and driving digital transformation, which was exciting and challenging.

I enjoyed the passion, excitement, and satisfaction of breaking a new artist. When I worked at Island Records, it was a golden era for music: we broke Amy Winehouse as one of the most successful artists of her generation. Being part of the team that delivered hit records for Drake, Stevie Wonder, Keane, the Fratellis, Sugababes, McFly, and MIKA was electrifying. I miss that excitement.

Trying to live a Christian life in an industry famed for sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll was sometimes challenging. A lot of the clichés and stories are true. There was also a lot of pressure — it’s a highly competitive industry to get into — and it demands a lot of effort and skill, and there are more failures than breaks. It’s hard living in that reality.

Selling music isn’t like selling a car: it’s a deeply personal and emotional thing, not a commodity. You’re dealing with a person’s life-work. I’ve always been interested in the creative mindset. While I wasn’t the one writing songs or playing them, I was drawn to the creative industries and, in particular, music. It’s in my DNA.

I’m very fortunate to have grown up in a very stable and secure Christian family environment. Both my parents are still around, and I have a younger brother with whom I’m also close. We all went to Emmanuel Church in Guildford, where I grew up.

I’ve lived in London for nearly 15 years. I live by Victoria Park, which was a life-saver during lockdown. I’m part of King’s Cross Church [KXC], and am part of one of our local hubs. It was while serving there that I had the idea for Bankuet.

I recall praying to God at a Spring Harvest festival when I was seven or eight. This was the beginning of my faith journey. At that age, I experienced God through a loving community.

University was a time of self-discovery, and, thankfully, I was part of a great student community at JPC [Jesmond Parish Church], in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Since then, I’m thankful for my pastors here, in London: Pete and Bee Hughes, of KXC, who lead an incredible, pioneering church, where my faith has grown massively.

It makes me angry seeing how people can end up in a foodbank through no fault of their own. Bankuet doesn’t claim to have an answer, but there are wider issues that need addressing. Covid-19 has highlighted a lot of problems for the marginalised across the world. It makes me angry that plenty of people have the ability to help, but they can’t be bothered.

When people hit their sweet spot in life: that makes me happy. We often measure success in completely the wrong way, even within a church context. To be truly successful means being obedient to God’s call on your life. Don’t compare yourself with others, and celebrate others when they achieve their goals.

I’m currently loving the EP that my good friend Tom Eccleshall, who is our pastor at KXC, has just released. It’s called Kingdom Dreamers, and, for me, it captures the sound of now. We should all be dreaming of a new world, not a “new normal”. My favourite song on the EP is “Fighting Back”, and that’s, for me, a call to action following Covid-19.

Bankuet’s proved that if we work together then many things are possible: we really can move the dial and make an impact. My faith gives me ultimate hope. God’s in the business of making all things new, all the time: we just need to jump on it and do our bit.

Covid-19 brought forward digital transformation by, in some cases, ten years or so. That’s exciting for the Church, businesses, charities, and society at large. More people using digital tech means more people are connected, which presents immeasurable opportunities.

I pray a lot that God gives me the wisdom and maturity to steward Bankuet. It’s been a thrilling ride, but requires 100 per cent of my energy and focus. I also pray for God’s guidance. He had a precise plan of how he wanted Bankuet to respond to Covid-19. There’s no coincidence involved.

My favourite Bible verse is Philippians 3.12-14, which talks about pressing on towards the goal. This year, we’ve all had to grow and show resilience, to forget our past failures and successes, to focus on what’s important, and keep keeping on. I’d ask Paul how he managed to accomplish so much, of such significance, and what he thinks of his legacy several thousand years later.

I’d choose to be locked in a church with Paul, whose teaching greatly influenced my faith. I especially love reading his letters. There are so many leadership lessons to learn from him. We’ve all been in lockdown this year, but Paul faced so many huge challenges, including being imprisoned, and he kept going.


Robin Ferris was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.


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