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CEO blog: getting our boots on the ground

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Above: Trustees meeting Diana Lambton, Fightback, and Jen McKevitt, Back on the Map

Trustees’ away day. What image does that conjure for you? Maybe, a room with flipcharts, some post-it notes and with flasks of tea and coffee slowly going tepid on a side table. Well, this year at the Community Foundation, we decided that definitely wasn’t for us. We weren’t revisiting strategy and we weren’t planning a major new initiative, but we were wanting to reflect, as is important for to do from time to time outside the normal business of board meetings. So, our trustees were clear that they wanted to spend their away day visiting some of our trusted grantees and hearing first-hand about their work.

white module content 1 Carmel McGrath describes the work of Star and Shadow

We visited Newcastle’s volunteer-run Star and Shadow Cinema who hosted us for lunch and provided a tour of their amazing space just outside the city centre; we were then driven by Watbus to Sunderland, where we spent the afternoon at Back on the Map, a brilliant community hub and housing organisation based in Hendon’s former Carnegie Library. While we were there, we also heard from Fightback, an energetic, tiny charity doing vital work locally with refugees and asylum seekers; from Washington Mind whose support and services for people experiencing mental ill-health are in ever greater demand; and from A690, one of Sunderland’s local youth projects whose positive activities extend into evenings and weekends.

All the organisations we met would count as small charities in national parlance because none of their incomes exceeded a million pounds. But they ranged in turnover from under £50,000 to over £900,000. They worked in different settings and with different communities. But what most struck our trustees was not their differences, but the common threads they heard across the day. The huge impact of public sector austerity and in particular the reduced capacity of local government to support and engage groups. The greater reliance on trusts and foundations and lottery distributors. The challenges of the welfare system, in particular universal credit, and the blunt effects being felt by some beneficiaries – including food poverty (an issue we’re will look at through our Vital Signs reports). And, for the groups themselves, the ever-greater challenge of just getting their core work funded without having to dress things up as innovations or expansions.

1 Listening to Jacqui Reeves, Washington Mind

As we digested the day’s lessons over a meal at Harissa Kitchen – part of the Food Nation social enterprise in Newcastle – trustees reflected on how we could do more and do better to help these organisations. “It was great to see and hear first-hand the invaluable work of these unsung heroes and to appreciate the real difference that the third-sector makes to lives every day,” said Paul, our Treasurer. Neil described it as “a very humbling experience that brought home how much society is now dependent on the charitable and voluntary sector to provide services that once were provided by the State”. Sally noted that “the voluntary and community sector is spending lots of resources in trying to mitigate the worst impact of policy changes.” While Anna observed: “The dedication of those who lead the varying projects came through loud and clear.”

Foundation boards can tend to sit in committee rooms talking about things happening far away and getting bogged down in the sometimes bureaucratic business of governance. But a day getting our boots on the ground, listening without agenda to the real experts, the people making the real difference: that is time really well spent – and for trustees, an invaluable part of fulfilling their duties to meet our charitable purpose. Our trustee Andrew summed it up best:

“It’s all too easy to see projects and charities as words and numbers and not have in mind the incredible individuals who battle day-in, day-out to make a difference with such limited and increasingly scarce resources. Three things really struck me – just how acute the problems are around even the essentials of life – food, shelter, hygiene and care; the importance of core funding to enable small charities to focus on making a real difference and not just where the next pound comes from and, finally, the positivity that can emerge when communities do pull together.”

We’d like to thank everyone who gave up precious time to talk to us.

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