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Community foundations (CFs) play a valuable role in UK society – yet their benefits and overall influence are perhaps not as widely known as they could be.

Essentially, a CF is a place-based charitable funder with an in-depth understanding of its local area. With that knowledge in hand, it works to answer the needs of residents in its remit by helping to devise and finance solutions to particular problems or issues.

It typically achieves this through a combination of:

  • encouraging local philanthropy,
  • strengthening the area’s voluntary and community sector, and
  • convening community resources.

In addition, CFs play a vital role as grant makers – distributing funding raised locally or through contracts that they have secured from national sources.  The funding supports local charities that provide vital support for communities.

CFs are completely separate from local authorities – but as part of their convening function, they have strong links with leaders in statutory bodies in fields such as health, education and policing.

At UK Community Foundations (UKCF), we represent 47 CFs that cover the whole of the UK – plus three stationed overseas, covering the Republic of Ireland, Jersey and Bermuda.

In the UK, every single postcode is attached to a local CF. That comprehensive geographical coverage means that CFs are embedded across a wide variety of different areas, ranging from rural spots in shire counties to metropolitan sprawls.

Those contrasts can be stark. For example, the affluent county of Wiltshire, where I’m from, contains some of the most deprived wards in the UK – but they’re relatively small compared to similar wards in other regions. With that patchwork in mind, our job at UKCF is to be the national voice of our 47 foundations.

Under that banner, one of our most important responsibilities is to provide a range of training and support services to our members: the many individuals who work in and organise CFs. That training and support is delivered through what we call our Communities of Practice – we have one for every type of activity that CFs are involved in, from grant making and philanthropy to operations and managing equity, diversity and inclusion.

Our Communities of Practice are based on a peer-to-peer learning model, which has really taken off as a result of the pandemic. Before Covid struck, all the CF chief executives would speak semi-regularly – but now I have Zoom calls with them every two weeks on a Monday lunchtime, and we have an audience of 35 to 40 chief executives tuning in.

One strong example of how this works is that in November last year, we held an in-depth, two-day online learning event called Together 21, which was all about equity, diversity and inclusion. We brought in some amazing external speakers who provided our members with a great deal of constructive challenge, encouraging them to think differently.

There was a particular emphasis on communication, with advice on how to convey the equity message to hard-to-reach places: who do you really need to speak to, and how should you go about it? That was extremely powerful and helpful material.

In October, UKCF is holding a long-awaited, in-person conference in Manchester, which will build on the type of work we’re doing in our Communities of Practice. Over three days, the conference will explore what UK communities will look like between 2030 and 2040 – so, we are encouraging our members to think about the future and understand how the services they provide will need to evolve and change.

For example, the environment is a huge topic with us at the moment – but environmental disruption will be felt in different ways by different communities. What global warming will mean to people in Doncaster is bound to be quite different to what it will mean to people in Norwich, whose surroundings could potentially be swept away by volatile weather rolling across flat terrain.

Each CF operates in the same way, because we have a quality accreditation standard they must all pass. That sets a benchmark for minimum expected performance, while functioning as a developmental tool. We’re currently setting our learning agenda for the next three years, so if we have some CFs that are not as strong as others in certain areas, we can bring them up to speed with our tailored learning packages.

We also have a leadership programme, which has become incredibly popular. It sets out to engage emerging leaders and current CF chief executives alike, and we’ve found that its participants share quite a lot of personal stories about the challenges they are facing and they become really close, which is lovely to see.

The CF leadership path also includes mentoring and coaching resources: whenever a new chief exec takes over at a foundation, there’s a buddy system that enables them to enhance their knowledge in any areas they need to brush up on. For example, there may be a new CEO who has come from a campaigning background, and their grasp of philanthropy isn’t quite as strong. So, that individual will be paired with someone who’s much more familiar with the workings of philanthropy.

One area where UKCF has been particularly effective in recent months is in liaising with corporates about what they can offer our various CFs. If we look at the whole ESG trend, corporates have tended to cover off the environmental and governance parts of the equation quite readily, while leaving the social aspect as a bit of an afterthought. But the pandemic has changed that quite a lot.

We had an approach from one household brand asking whether we’d be happy to help them run their community grants programme. After we looked at the details, we had to go back and explain that what they were looking to do was inefficiently organised and, as such, undeliverable. That sparked a dialogue where they asked us how we would structure and manage the scheme if we were in charge of developing it. So, we’re in touch with them to ensure that the project will be sustainable and really work for the communities it’s aimed at.

That’s just one way we’re looking to promote best-practice corporate citizenship among our stakeholders in the business community.

Voices from the community: Rosemary Macdonald is CEO of UK Community Foundations.