13th Nov 2018

Left: Grigor McLelland, founding chair, George Hepburn, Director and Carole Howells, deputy chair. Right: Fiona Cruickshank, chair and Rob Williamson, CEO

It’s 1988. Margaret Thatcher has become the longest-serving 20th century Prime Minister.

The BBC’s runs the first Red Nose Day which raises £15m.

The average house price in North East England is £28,000.

And, in December, the Community Foundation holds its inaugural AGM.

Visionary as they were, our founders may have hesitated at the idea that, 30 years later, the organisation they established would go on to become the largest of its kind outside north America – and one that would be able to bring a three-week festival of Giving and Philanthropy to the region. But there’s no doubt the ambitions they set in motion fuelled our success and continue to shape our values.

In 1988, community foundations were well established in north America. But it wasn’t until the middle of that decade that there was a concerted effort to explore how the model could work in the UK. In Newcastle, a steering group oversaw feasibility work; the results encouraged them to establish a new charity – then called the Tyne & Wear Foundation – and secure start-up funding from the Baring Foundation and local trusts. By the time of that first AGM, there was a small office, a founding Director, George Hepburn, and a constituted Board, chaired by Grigor McClelland with Carole Howells as his deputy.

The story of our early years has been told before but bears some repeating. The Foundation grew on the back of a long-standing tradition of philanthropy in North East England. It is no co-incidence that early support came from Catherine Cookson, William Leech, Ralph Carr-Ellison, Tom Cowie and many more. Our founders gained critical knowledge from the US about building endowment, and ours reached take off on the back of a match challenge from the Charities Aid Foundation and the Mott Foundation. They also learned the value of starting where donors are, with funds as vehicles for giving which matched people’s wishes. And, from the start, they formed strong funding partnerships – with the Tyne & Wear Development Corporation, Goldsmiths Company, Henry Smith Charity and many others.

But none of that would have counted had we not been firmly embedded in our communities. The first grants were made in 1989 and supported community-led projects in North Tyneside and Sunderland, groups for people with Alzheimer’s and learning disabilities, anti-racism work and lesbian and gay groups. One of the recipients of funding in that very first round, Elswick Girls’ Project – now the West End Women and Girls Centre – is one of the #poweredbyphilanthropy organisations profiled during our GeNErosity Festival. It is just one of many hundreds of vital local charities which we travelled alongside on their journey over the past three decades.

I joined the Foundation in 2009 when we and our area were feeling the full weight of the financial crash. Our endowment had lost 25% of its value and – in common with many of the organisations we supported – we had to cut costs. In a year or two, markets had recovered, proving again the importance of endowment as the bedrock of our long-term resilience and growth. The endowment is now nearly twice the size it was at the time of the crash, supported by the continued generosity of donors from all walks of life who want to make a difference on their doorstep. But we’ve remained a restless, forward looking organisation, continuing to bring ideas in from elsewhere – like the Vital Signs reports we helped introduce to the UK in 2013 – and to find new ways to engage people in philanthropy, as we are doing with our Giving Network.

So, what comes next? Well, it remains our ambition to build the Community Foundation’s grant-making to £10m a year by 2025 through growing the endowment to £100m and through increasing flow-through funds. But I think you should judge us not on these numbers alone, but how well do on three challenges. First, can we continue to shape our grant-making to suit the financial ecology of the groups which serve our communities? That will mean maintaining high levels of small, easy-to-access, responsive grants but, alongside them, providing more secure support for our most trusted grantees to get on with doing what they do best. Second, are we growing through generating new and revitalised philanthropy by inspiring more people to give and by releasing dormant assets? Finally, can we demonstrate that we really know our stuff by being fully engaged with our communities and shining a light on vital issues and important local causes.

In 1987, Peter Deans produced the feasibility study on establishing community foundations in North East England. His prescient conclusion reads: “Though I would hope they could prove their worth within three or four years, it will probably be a decade before they begin to show their true potential.” Now, three decades on, I think our potential is proved. Our challenge is to continue to honour our heritage while evolving with our communities as the leading charity for our area. No one can be in any doubt that there are challenges and uncertainties ahead. But the past 30 years has shown us that the community foundation model is both resilient and adaptable.

So, on this our thirtieth anniversary, our deep gratitude goes to all the members, donors, staff, trustees, grantees and partners who have been with us on this amazing journey. We hope you, like us, look to the future with excitement and renewed commitment to making a difference.

November 2018

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