Leeds Community Foundation: Celebrating 10 years of making a difference

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Leeds Community Foundation, the charity that brings good causes and donors together, is about to celebrate 10 years of making a difference for the better. Andrew Vine reports.

THE economy is picking up, and in the centre of Leeds, the city’s thriving business community is optimistic that better times lie ahead.

But a couple of miles out of the city centre, it’s a very different story. There are households which are amongst the poorest in the country, families reliant on handouts from food banks, and parents making the choice between heating their homes or giving their children a hot meal. That’s where Leeds Community Foundation comes in. It’s the charity linking community groups working to help the most needy with donors who can make that vital work happen, as well as distributing millions in grants.

The foundation is preparing to celebrate the 10th anniversary of making its first grants with a birthday event at the Howard Assembly Room 
on December 4 when it will look forward to the next 10 years.

It has already made a huge difference for the better in Leeds – distributing more than £23m in grants since 2005 and continuing to give out between £2m and £3m every year.

And every penny is needed. Leeds may be prospering again, but a lot of its people are not, and the foundation is acutely aware that the deep-seated problems it has addressed over the past decade will present new challenges over the years to come.

The foundation’s offices in St Paul’s Street are in the heartland of the financial and legal sectors that do so much to drive the fortunes of Leeds. And appropriately enough, they are a stone’s throw from many of the city’s great buildings raised by Victorian philanthropists.

Appropriately, because the foundation is reinventing philanthropy for a new age, persuading businesses to give community groups and charities the means to help the poorest.

Persuading them to do so is vital, because about 60 per cent of the foundation’s funds come from private donors. The remaining 40 per cent come from sources including Comic Relief and Sport Relief.

The foundation’s chief executive is Sally-Anne Greenfield, who got it up and running from her dining room table 10 years ago with funding from the former regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, as well as the European Regional Development Fund.

“We were running a grants programme from day one,” she said. “It was all new to everybody. One of the big things was, ‘Who do we go and see to raise funds?’ A lot of the early days were spent planning, talking and meeting to find out what the Leeds Community Foundation needed to be.

“Our cause is Leeds. It’s almost easier if you’re raising money for bricks and mortar, whereas we are selling hope, opportunity, aspiration. We want Leeds to be a better city for everybody, but what does that mean? What does that mean we should be funding or concentrating on?

“A lot of it was thinking about what makes Leeds tick, and that’s something I still think about most days.”

Deprivation and abuse remain huge challenges. Priorities for the foundation include child sexual exploitation, domestic violence and the poverty trap, where families have two or three generations which have never worked.

The economic slump aggravated the difficulties that the foundation addresses. A cut in public sector funding resulted in charities coming under more pressure to fill gaps at a time when their own income is down.

Sally-Anne said: “You’ve got this twin problem of less resources both publicly and privately, and at the same time an increase in demand. The role of the charity sector has changed. Ten years ago, it was to fill the gaps that the state can’t meet, and now the role is to provide services that the state can’t deliver.

“The economic downturn at the same time as cuts in public expenditure and welfare reforms have had a catastrophic impact on the lives of local people, which is matched by the rise in food banks.

“There’s a food bank in Horsforth, and you think, ‘But Horsforth isn’t deprived’, but there are families there who have to rely on it. People have lost their jobs, companies are downsizing and focusing on staying open, making profits, not giving it away.

“Some families are forced to choose between eat or heat. They’re saying, ‘I can afford to heat my home or have some hot food, and today I’m going to choose between one of the two’.”

But the foundation is increasingly successful at getting its message across to businesses in Leeds, who are helping it deliver the funding and support that community organisations need.

Sally-Anne said: “There has been an increased interest in being local. Ten years ago, some companies would only support a national charity, and now they are wanting to do something on the doorstep that they can see, and which contributes to the health of the city in which their employees live.

“The message we want to get over is, ‘If you love the city in which you live, how can you make it better for everybody?’

“It’s about matching people’s interest and passion with something that’s happening in the community. For some people it’s older people, for others it’s the young.

“If you’re interested in car mechanics, I can find you a project that gets young people involved in that, to stop them stealing. People like funding a solution.

“Our role is showing the solutions.

“To me, modern-day philanthropists are funding solutions and activities. What does modern-day philanthropy look like? Rather than the Victorians building a hospital or a poorhouse, it’s more, ‘Will you fund some activities or initiatives in local communities?’”

Modern-day philanthropy in Leeds was exemplified by the late businessman Jimi Heselden, founder of Hesco, the company that developed a system of barriers that have protected homes at risk of flooding as well as British troops in Afghanistan.

Between 2008 and 2010, the year of his death, Mr Heselden donated £23m to the foundation. That extraordinarily generous legacy lives on. About £1.5m a year – half the foundation’s grants – comes from those donations.

Even so, demand for funding still outstrips what the foundation can give. There are 3,500 community organisations in Leeds and every grant scheme attracts twice as many applications as there is money. In some cases they are oversubscribed by five times.

Last year, the foundation had nearly 800 applications, but could only give grants to just over half of them.

That spurs Sally-Anne and her team of nine to constantly search for new donors.

“It’s really frustrating and sometimes quite distressing for us and the groups to turn something down. We have to say, ‘We’re really sorry, but it’s massively oversubscribed and we can’t fund you’. The application may be brilliant, but we just haven’t got enough money.”

There are 48 community foundations in Britain, and Leeds’s is in the top five, in terms of the funds it has and the grants it makes.

As it embarks on its next 10 years, the foundation will set out a vision for Leeds that it wants everybody living or working in the city to support in whatever way they can.

Sally-Anne said: “What we’re looking to do is launch a 10-year vision for the city from a community point of view. If we’re talking about what would life look like for the people who make up communities, what would that be?

“We’re looking for an aspirational vision that we think everybody can be part of, because we firmly believe it’s everybody’s responsibility to put something back into the city.

“I grew up in a village and everybody knew everybody and helped everybody, so it’s trying to create that community spirit in a city.”

Further details about Leeds Community Foundation can be found at: www.leedscf.org.uk

HOW IT ALL STARTED

The Community Foundations movement began in the United States 100 years ago in 1914.

Lawyer Frederick H Goff established the first to pool the resources of philanthropists in Cleveland, Ohio, for the betterment of the city.

There are now 1,440 community foundations in more than 50 countries.

The first community foundation in Britain was founded in 1975. Now there are 48, supporting 15,000 donors and £426m in endowment, giving out 200,000 grants worth £65m

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