Fund's new strategy unveiled
Called “It starts with community”, it is an important document and comes out at a critical time for the sector in Northern Ireland, beset as it is, by the cost of living crisis and public spending cuts.
The fund is the largest community funder outside government and although it has neither the remit nor the resources to plug the gaps left by the cuts, its new strategy will be closely studied by all in the sector.
The strategy has taken 18 months to develop, following extensive consultation – 18,000 individuals and organisations from every part of the UK took part, sharing their insights into how the fund was performing and what its priorities should be.
It highlighted their concerns about the sector but also emphasised the good things the fund does, and how much it is valued. And the consultation helped to identify not just where the future focus should lie but also on what has worked well and what does not need to be changed.
What emerges is an evolutionary rather than a revolutionary document.
Kate Beggs is Northern Ireland director of the National Lottery Community Fund. She said:
“We recognise what a difficult time this is for organisations and for the people and communities they support – particularly the funding environment and recent cuts.
“It provided a challenge for us, and also the need to offer some more clarity about what we can and cannot fund.
“There is a risk we might be overwhelmed by the demand and not be able to meet all of the needs out there. That would obviously be disappointing for us as well as the communities concerned. We clearly needed to offer a bit more clarity and focus on areas where we think we’ll make the biggest difference at a time when people are struggling so much.”
Therefore a key aspect of the new strategy is the stress on the fund providing the biggest difference to the areas, issues and people most in need rather than being all things to all people.
It is hardly surprising therefore that the strategy also emphasises the importance of the effectiveness of the investment it makes through its grants.
The fund wants to encourage a greater focus on this and to promote conversations and sharing of evidence about what works, and what does not.
Kate Beggs added: “We are defining ourselves as ‘more than a funder’ and want that to translate into our day-to-day work. We have access to a vast pool of intelligence from right across the UK and we want to put it to use.
“We want to support grant holders to share insights, and we want to champion what works and use that intelligence to help inform and influence policy.
As well as the emphasis on effectiveness, the strategy lays out the fund’s focus for the next seven years. There are four key priorities where it wants to make the biggest impact. These are to support communities to come together; to be environmentally sustainable; help children and young people thrive; and enable people to live healthier lives.
The funder has also committed to taking “an equity-based approach to its work going forward, with a sharper focus on addressing inequalities.”
Stripped of the jargon that means monies will be invested where they are needed most. This is how the fund operates now but it has never been explicitly stated before.
Kate Beggs highlighted the environmental sustainability priority saying: “We are particularly excited at the opportunities this provides. Climate change is a major issue confronting us and this seems a time where we can show leadership in Northern Ireland and make a difference.”
The fund’s Awards for All Scheme which distributes smaller pots of money has always enjoyed high levels of recognition across the UK, reaching into every constituency. Unsurprisingly the consultation which preceded the strategy reinforced that view but feedback showed an appetite for updating the value of grants awarded and the flexibility to spend the money over a longer period.
The fund has responded by agreeing to extend schemes and doubling the maximum funding available to £20k.
“We are not at all suggesting that bids should be doubled,” said Kate Beggs. “As always we’d be advising those who apply to ask for what they actually need.”
The changes will go live this Autumn and further details will be shared about changes to the fund before then.
Meanwhile all current funding schemes remain open. What will happen next will be careful consideration about how the new strategy in the Northern Ireland context. This will include a further round of consultation with people and communities which will take place in the autumn.
The sums involved are considerable. Across the UK the fund distributes around £500 million a year through 10,000 grants and plans to invest over £4 billion of funding into communities by 2030. In Northern Ireland last year it awarded 663 new grants totalling £27.9 million to support local communities.
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