Funders make it easier to get their support
This week the Funders Forum for Northern Ireland launched a website, which is designed to help others to understand what each of the members do, what they fund and how to get in touch with them.
Given their scale and reach this will become an essential resource for the voluntary and community sector.
The development marks an important milestone for the forum, which used to be known as the NI Trust Group, as it raises its profile and increases collaboration between its members.
Funders involved cover a wide range of causes and vary from small local funds to very big players. They include: Belfast Charitable Society, Sport NI, The Social Change Initiative, Ulster Garden Villagers Limited, LFT Charitable Trust, BBC Children in Need, Community Foundation NI, Princes Trust, Victoria Homes Trust, The National Lottery Heritage Fund, The National Lottery Community Fund, Carnegie Trust, Halifax Foundation for NI, Architectural Heritage Fund, Enkalon Foundation, St Stephen’s Green Trust, UnLTD, Gallaher Trust, The Honourable The Irish Society, Fermanagh Trust, The Arts Council of Northern Ireland and National Churches Trust.
Funders Forum chair is Paula Reynolds, chief executive of Belfast Charitable Society. She explained: “We may be very different in scale and focus but we have a shared vision about improving society and helping the vulnerable and disadvantaged in some shape or form. We want to work together to help people access our funds – it is in all our interests.”
Paula, who steps down as chair in November, has been on a mission to transform the Forum.
She said: “When I came in funders meetings were mostly about members updating each other on their grants programmes, but I felt we could do a bit more – to make our meetings more topical and to discuss issues and making something meaningful about funders coming together.”
This process bore fruit as the pandemic struck. The forum started to meet every month to look at emerging issues and to respond to very urgent needs.
For example within two weeks of the first lockdown five funders got together to deliver 225 laptops to students from less well-off backgrounds in North Belfast, enabling them to learn from home.
Paula said: “An important part of our work is to improve co-ordination of funders and to eliminate duplication of funding. So at these meetings some of the large organisations were able to share live information about what they were funding which really helped in that regard.”
The Forum is bringing a collective focus onto these emerging needs and issues.
She said: “One we picked up on during Covid but which was already becoming apparent, was how much the infrastructure of the sector has been worn away by the tendering and commissioning process.”
In practical terms this means that a lot of network organisations are not receiving funding for the vital support work that they provide, essentially because commissioning approach usually demands specific outputs, and saying you are out doing community development work rarely counts.
The same fault line extends to funding core costs, she says.
Paula added: “During our conversations we looked at these issues and how we can gather more information to allow us to influence decision making in our own organisations to encourage funding to address them.”
“Not everything we fund has to be new and shiny and innovative.”
This also has implications for the short-term nature of much funding for what are long-term problems.
In November the forum will hold a conference for members to examine these issues in further depth.
Its purpose is stated as follows: “the pandemic shone a light on the inequalities and level of disadvantage in our society. It evidenced the weaknesses in the infrastructures that are required to help society, the community and voluntary sector and how we support those most in need.
“The pandemic also enabled us to identify and trial new methods of delivery and amplified new voices. All of this should be further developed to create an opportunity to make real positive paradigm change.”
There will be two key themes. The first us around the stability, certainty and sustainability of the voluntary and community sector. This will examine such issues as funding core costs, supporting infrastructure, leadership and succession planning, multi-year funding and unrestricted funding.
The second will centre on climate change and how funders can support communities to reduce environmental impact and their carbon footprint.
Paula hopes that the improved collaboration between members will allow the forum to become a “front door” for organisations wanting support.
“This would be about due diligence of organisations,” she says. “Obviously each of our members has its own governance and objects, and operation and business plan, and can only fund proposals that fit with this. However we could make the process easier if the Forum, or a group of funders, was able to look at applicants’ finances, governance and all the technical and legal requirements. That would mean funders would have more time to concentrate on looking at the proposed project as well as avoiding duplicating work down the line.”
Paula will step down as the forum’s chair in November this year and will be succeeded by Fionnuala Walsh, National Head, Northern Ireland BBC Children in Need.
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