Kris Barnett, 52, received the award in recognition of her contribution towards helping civil engineers and their families over the past 20 years.
Kris, who lives in Lindfield with her husband and two sons, said she felt ‘humbled, proud and privileged’ to receive the OBE.
But she added: “I feel very strongly that the award is for the organisation.”
“I’m lucky enough to be the leader, but actually I have a fantastic team of staff, trustees and volunteer visitors across the UK,” said Kris.
Kris said the ICE Benevolent Fund is an occupational registered charity that provides financial and support services to members of the Institution of Civil Engineers and their families.
“The Institution of Civil Engineers has something like 90,000 members,” she said, adding that the Ben Fund supports these people if they are facing difficult times.
“We will award financial grants to people on low incomes all over the world and we will support people back into work after a period of unemployment,” she said.
Kris added that the Ben Fund offers counselling and wellbeing services too, like workshops and webinars, as well as lunchtime learning sessions.
The Ben Fund also has an independent financial advisor to help those facing challenging debts, finance problems or tight budgets.
Being registered with both the Charity Commission and Companies House, the Ben Fund is a charity and company at the same time.
It has an estate of about 50 properties in Haywards Heath, just next to Sainsbury’s on Balcombe Road, and the homes are set around an ornamental pond.
The estate was designed in the 1940s by Sussex architect Harold Turner, who received advice from Sir Edwin Lutyens.
“The charitable estate is one of the services we provide to members worldwide,” said Kris, adding that properties are about ‘50 percent’ occupied by beneficiaries.
The Ben Fund rents out the other homes on the open market, which helps the charity meet its worldwide beneficiary requirements.
“About 25 per cent of our beneficiaries are based overseas,” said Kris, explaining that about 4,000 ICE members a year end up facing difficult circumstances.
Kris said she started working for ICE Benevolent Fund as a director 20 years ago after working in the city of London as executive director of the Investment Property Forum.
When she moved to Lindfield she saw the charity job in the local paper – “I think it was the Middy actually” – and applied for it.
“I’ve enjoyed every single minute of it,” she added.
Kris said that when she started the job the Ben Fund just gave out grants to widows who did not have enough money to live on.
So she began the trend of using more proactive wellbeing services, which have been emulated by other charities since.
“I think that’s possibly why I’ve been singled out,” said Kris, adding that the Ben Fund’s focus has shifted towards helping people before they face difficulties instead of responding to a crisis after it happens.
“We’re giving out fewer financial grants now than we ever have done but we’re helping more people to seek solutions to their own problems by offering them proactive support,” she said.
Kris does other charitable work as well, being a trustee of The Association of Charitable Organisations, as well as volunteering for the Clair Hall vaccination programme in Haywards Heath.
She said the experience at Clair Hall has been ‘absolutely amazing’ and is pleased to help society get back to normal.
“I take my hat off to the people who are leading the programme at Clair Hall and I’ve just been so glad to be a foot soldier,” she said.
Kris said she feels ‘incredibly proud’ of the work she does for the Ben Fund to help people in an often stressful industry that contains a lot of mental health challenges.
A Chartered Institute of Building report last year, for example, found that one in four construction workers considers suicide.
“It’s a very big problem for mental health and it’s my role to make sure we are delivering relevant and appropriate services to people who are struggling under extreme circumstances,” said Kris.