The end of the road for the Building Change Trust
Nigel McKinney is remarkably chipper for someone who is charged with shutting down the charity he leads, a process which will involve his own redundancy.
In 2009 Big Lottery endowed the fund with £10 million to be spent by the end of 2018 with the intent that it would have a “transformational impact” on the voluntary and community sector and disadvantaged communities.
The BCT itself is a charity, and so could have decided to carry on once the money had been spent, raising the necessary funds from elsewhere.
But this was never an option. McKinney explains: “The board decided to wind up a long time ago. We’ve not been seeking to build an empire – what we have been doing is identifying key themes and issues we believe the sector should address.”
He said he believed that the trust the organisation had built up would have been eroded if it had decided to continue, and that this would have impaired the collaborative relationships it had built up.
The total invested has been even higher than the original grant – more than £12 million as opposed to £10 million. The difference is interest earned and additional funding received during the period.
The BCT is intending to finish with a flourish – looking forward rather than backwards, and outlining the key issues it believes need to be tackled to ensure a vibrant future for the Third Sector.
The paper outlining all this is intended as a legacy for others to pick up and run with. It is currently under preparation and will be published shortly.
It identifies two areas for change and development: volunteering and civic activism and five “enabling actions”: Innovation, Collaboration, A focus on outcomes and impact, Resilience and Renewal, Leadership.
McKinney is especially excited about the potential of civic activism to have a transformational impact not just on the sector, but for all citizens.
This is hardly surprising because the BCT has taken a very different approach to traditional funders in this area, and its work demonstrates the potential for future funding practices.
A traditional funding model involves giving money to charities to help them to do their work. This was different. Here the BCT brought individuals and organisations together to learn from each other and international best practice. And ideas that were funded emerged from those discussions.
McKinney said: “This was a journey of discovery and it really energised everyone involved.”
Already two potentially revolutionary ideas have emerged from it.
Participatory Budgeting is a means by which communities get a voice in how public money is spent in their areas. Now councils are getting enthusiastic. BCT has funded a training project for PB – and local authorities are starting to take up the challenge.
“There is a lot of enthusiasm amongst councils,” says McKinney “although the monies they are planning to invest at present is low.”
Building trust and support in Participatory Budgeting will be a slow process, but it is gaining traction and evidence from other countries demonstrates that it increases confidence in public bodies and engagement by both communities and individuals in local politics.
The other is the civic assembly that the BCT is funding as part of its legacy. Civic assemblies comprise of a group of citizens, usually 100 randomly selected who are brought together to deliberate on contentious issues that politicians find difficult.
They are an addition to the normal democratic process, not a replacement for it and when used well can be very powerful – helping politicians to get decisions right.
This one will take place in the absence of government, and its topic will be agreed by an advisory group, not politicians. But it will be an important experiment and a demonstration of the potential for citizens themselves to grapple with difficult policy issues and agree on how to resolve them.
McKinney cites an example from England of a parliamentary committee commissioning a civic assembly to examine how social care should be funded in the future.
A similar exercise in Northern Ireland would be equally useful, helping legislators to understand how people view a sensitive, complex and difficult issue when they are presented with the facts and the evidence.
Ten years is a long time and there have been plenty of lessons along the way. In retrospect it is hard not to conclude that the fund was a little over-sold at the start. £10 million is a lot of money, but not that much over 10 years, and the suggestion that that, of itself, would be “transformational” was a little bit over the top.
Whatever the truth of this McKinney concedes that expectation was so high for BCT that it did take a long time for a clear vision to emerge for the project and for work to get fully underway. Perhaps that was inevitable.
And there has been good progress made in some areas which have not been picked up by others. Collaboration NI is a good example. It received £2 million for its work in stimulating collaborations and mergers within the sector and evaluations show that it did make a difference. However once the programme closed the baton was not picked up – despite the need for more collaboration being agreed by government, funders and the sector alike.
Another disappointment for McKinney is that although government has shown great interest in the work and there is interest in supporting and developing the sector, the absence of an Executive and Assembly means that no progress on new policy can be made.
And, throughout the lifetime of the programme has hung the inability of the authorities to decide how to invest the £10 million available in dormant accounts. McKinney believes this should be deployed as a trust fund, with the interest dispersed every year to support social finance. Ten years on BCT’s money has been spent and yet the dormant account funds are still dormant.
McKinney is desperate to help to create a lasting legacy for the sector. He most certainly does not want BCT’s final report to be yet another report. He believes it needs to be picked up and followed through.
For this to happen will require a shift in thinking by either funders, government or both. It will involve going beyond the usual route of funding charities to do business as usual activities.
This means recognising that the Third Sector needs funding for research and development in order to maximise its impact on the causes it supports. This is not a big ask – after all the private sector gets this kind of support from the public purse.
Securing support for this might be the best legacy of all for the Building Change Trust.
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