How businesses in Leeds and Bradford can put something back into their communities

In the world of business there has, rightly, been much attention paid to those sectors and companies that have battled – with varying degrees of success – through the Covid lockdowns.

Helen Ball, development director at Leeds Community Foundation. PHOTO: LCF.
Helen Ball, development director at Leeds Community Foundation. PHOTO: LCF.

But little has been said about those organisations that rely on the private sector for survival, and that’s something that Helen Ball aims to change.

As development director for Leeds Community Foundation, she has seen at close quarters the impact the pandemic has had on some communities in West Yorkshire, where food banks and homelessness have become unremarkable.

“There is greater demand now, but there’s always been some there; the pandemic has just highlighted it and pushed it to the forefront,” she told The Yorkshire Post.

“It’s really pulled into focus how deep it goes in terms of people who are struggling to feed their families, and people who are struggling to function on a normal basis – and how much those people rely on small organisations in their communities to help them.

“Home school, for instance, has shown how those parents who don’t have a lot of means, and perhaps didn’t have support when they were children, might not have the literacy they need to help teach their own children.”

Leeds Community Foundation is effectively an intermediary, generating and investing charitable donations and accessing government funding to deliver grants and expertise into hundreds of community organisations across a large swathe of West Yorkshire.

Last year, it distributed £5.8m in grants to 478 community organisations, including St George’s Crypt in Leeds city centre and St Vincent’s Support Centre in the east of the city.

It also manages GiveBradford, which last year distributed £1.5m in grants to 109 community organisations.

A typical grant is just £2,500, but delivered at street-level the impact can be seismic. Last year, the foundation helped over 110,000 people across the two cities. This year, it has also distributed grants in Wakefield and the North East, thanks to some of its national funders.

But while Covid and other factors have seen the level of need increase, they have also caused many businesses to tighten their belts. As a result, Ms Ball wants to widen the foundation’s pool of corporate supporters, or “members”, from 160 to 200 over the next five months.

“We’ve got a fantastic core of supporters who have been with us throughout the last 18 months that we’re really grateful for. But we’re now out trying to meet as many people as we can, and encourage them to get involved with what we do,” she says.

Companies become members for £1,000, a flat rate, regardless of size. Current supporters include ‘big fish’, such as Arup and Hitachi, as well as smaller local firms such as architecture agency Enjoy Design and IT consultancy The Data Shed.

“One of the most compelling things about the work we do, and that businesses are really interested in, is that they can really see the impact [of their donation] very quickly and very much in their own locality,” says Ms Ball.

“As a community foundation, we give members the opportunity to be close to the difference they make. At a time when whole cities and areas need to recover, I think it’s important that we come together and we do that collaboratively. So we give them a vehicle through which they can do that.”

Much of that impact is direct-ed to causes addressing poverty, health and environmental sustainability, but it’s the first two that are currently taking precedence.

“The majority of our grants at the moment are going to people in need, across that health and poverty agenda,” says Ms Ball.

“That’s not because climate change isn’t important – it is. It’s just that some community groups have been ‘surviving’ for so long that they haven’t had the resources to address things like energy-efficiency yet.

“I think the issue of sustainability will come forward more over time, because our work is very much a collaboration between the donor and the groups themselves, and I can see that a lot of donor businesses will be keen to make a change around that environmental agenda.”

The payback for business supporters is not just a sense of having done some good – although that, for many, would suffice. Members can also network with each other at regular events, and as Covid restrictions ease further, there are likely to be more employee opportunities for volunteering and continued professional development through mentoring at the community groups the foundation helps.

“Linked by us, our members and the community organisations we work with are a community together, and the main thing is ensuring that they get the opportunity to work with each other as much as they do with us,” says Ms Ball.

Ultimately, she says, Leeds Community Foundation offers a unique proposition for any business looking to make a measurable difference to the area of West Yorkshire they operate in.

“We share a passion and a commitment to Leeds and Bradford being the best they can be, and the people within it having the best opportunities they can,” she says.

“I think generally, companies’ support is often about an alignment of that energy and passion, and of shared values – of wanting to make both areas better places for all of us.”

CV: Helen Ball, development director, Leeds Community Foundation

Helen Ball was born in Dewsbury and grew up in nearby Mirfield.

She went to Mirfield Free Grammar School and went on to earn a degree in theatre studies at Bretton Hall College, then a campus of the University of Leeds.

She joined Barnsley Council in 2004, working in community arts, and became head of cultural services for three years.

In 2013 she joined the Civic Arts Centre in Barnsley as chief executive.

During nearly nine years of her leadership, the non-profit arts and culture hub saw visitor numbers rejuvenated and the launch of a £7.2m restoration project.

She left the Civic in June 2021 to take up her role as development director at Leeds Community Foundation.