Where the Big Lottery millions will go

25 Nov 2014 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

Joanne McDowell, NI director of the Big Lottery Fund
Joanne McDowell, NI director of the Big Lottery Fund

Early next year the Big Lottery Fund will unveil its spending priorities for the next six years with more than £100 million at stake, Scope caught up with Northern Ireland director Joanne McDowell to read the runes.

There’s already some good news.

The small grants scheme Awards for All is safe, so we can expect a continued investment of around £4.5 million into this programme.

And Big Lottery is working on a new Empowering Young People programme to support young people at risk of being NEET, those with learning disabilities and young carers.

The rest is yet to be decided and there are going to be some very tough choices.

McDowell explained: “We are going to have to be very honest about expectations around what we can support. We have a lot to invest, but we cannot fill the huge gap that cuts and other pressures will create. That means we have to prioritise. Our mission is to focus on people and communities in need and we are going to have to be very clear that that is where our investment is going. “

Learning from what works

Staff at Big have just spent weeks on the road talking to groups and communities, working out which schemes make a difference and also analysing projects elsewhere in the UK, because for Big, it will be those schemes that have the best chance of making a real difference that are going to get support in the tough times ahead.

McDowell said: “We are in a unique position:  because of our reach and scope we fund projects right across Northern Ireland from rural Fermanagh to urban Belfast and we also operate right across the UK so we can see how challenges have been met elsewhere too – and there is a lot we can share and learn.

She gives two examples of schemes that have worked extremely well.

  • In Northern Ireland Big funded a programme which has now inspired a UK-wide scheme, helping older people who have problems with their drinking: an often hidden issue which blights many lives.
  • In Scotland there is expertise on transferring public buildings into voluntary and community group ownership which McDowell believes would be of value in Northern Ireland as the Review of Public Administration creates spare building stock.

The intelligence gathered from talking to communities will be used, not just to inform Big and its funding priorities but will also be made more generally available so that those seeking funding can learn from best practice elsewhere. Big is now looking at the best way of sharing the immense amount of data it has collected over the years.

McDowell added: “ We are probably funding programmes in every small village, town rural community right across Northern Ireland through our small grants programme  We have seen through this how fantastic people are making a real difference so we totally understand the value of small grants: the value that they bring is often well in excess of the actual amount invested. “

That’s why they will remain a key element in Big’s new programme.

Making a difference

She cites a number of “grow your own veg” schemes funded by Big as making a tangible difference, not just in terms of teaching people new skills and improving diet, but also in improving mental and physical health and improving community cohesion, in cases, for example, where schools share their produce with older people.

The spirit of the new programme will be about making a change and a positive difference to peoples’ lives.

She said: “People and communities know what they need and what difference that would make to them. The starting point has to be to ask what would make difference in your community – because let’s be honest a lot of other funding hasn’t make a difference.

Big will want to know how programmes are involving the people they are designed to benefit, not just in the planning stage but also in the delivery and management of a project.

They will also expect to be informed when projects are not working as intended.

“What is the point of us expecting someone to continue with a project if it is not engaging with the right people? We are here to help with that to vary the grant and ensure it does work. So we are expecting projects to be frank with us so we can help re-focus if necessary. Nobody should be frightened of that, ” she says.

Working together

McDowell, in common with most observers, predicts challenging times ahead for the sector. Some organisations may not make it, others will have to re-focus on core activities, new organisations will emerge. Although she is confident that as always has happened in the past the voluntary and community sector has come up with solutions to the challenges it faces.

One she is keen to promote is more collaboration.

“Getting organisations to collaborate more, or in some cases getting them to see the value of collaboration, is always a challenge.

“We are making progress though. Sometimes partnerships work best where there is no formal agreement, for example. The key is always to look at beneficiaries needs and to work together to meet them”.

Big is expected to unveil its plans in January. Inevitably there will be winners and losers when tough decisions are made. We can, however expect a very clear focus on people and communities most in need, and, during these challenging times, strong scrutiny not just on the potential of projects to make a difference, but also on the delivery.

Join the Conversation...

We'd love to know your thoughts on this article.
Join us on Twitter and join the conversation today.

Join Our Newsletter

Get the latest edition of ScopeNI delivered to your inbox.