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A ‘Northern Powerhouse’ for philanthropy

By Peter Harrison-Evans 30 September 2015

Ever since I left Manchester four years ago to work ‘down South’, I’ve been feeling guilty. Should I have stayed and worked in the town in which I was educated? Should I have helped in the collective effort to lift the North out of its post-industrial malaise?

Surely, I told myself, by working with charities and funders I am, in some small way, helping to redress the balance. It seems not. A study of grant-making in the UK by the Directory of Social Change in 2015 found that while London received £13.23 per head of population, the North West received just £8.55, the North East got even less at £5.57, and Yorkshire received a paltry £4.40.

Many foundations and trusts are conscious of this problem and are looking to change the London-centric funding landscape. Paul Hamlyn’s 2015 Funding Strategy emphasises its commitment to supporting communities across the country, ‘actively seek[ing] to support work outside London’.

Major funding bodies, such as Big Lottery Fund and Comic Relief, go even further with a mandate to ensure funding is evenly distributed across the country. While these efforts should be commended, more work is required to generate a systemic change and ensure regional equality in funding.

Anecdotally, funders often grumble that despite their best attempts to channel more money away from the capital, there are much fewer grant applications made from outside London. If there aren’t any grant applications from an underserved area, what can funders do?

A possible solution to this impasse may be found by turning to the chancellor’s idea of the ‘Northern Powerhouse’, at the heart of which lies the commitment to spend £13 billion on Northern infrastructure.

If funders want to be able to fund effective charities outside of the South East they too must find a way to help develop the voluntary sector’s infrastructure and build its capacity to support local charities. Initiatives like Transforming Local Infrastructure and Big Assist are a great start—but local infrastructure organisations like Councils for Voluntary Service have been hit hard by cuts in local authority funding, and need further support.

One benefit of supporting these voluntary sector infrastructure organisations is highlighted by the Office for Civil Society, whose research found that organisations accessing infrastructure support had a ‘substantially higher likelihood of success in grant applications and bidding for contracts’. Beyond this more specific boon, assisting these organisations is a cost-effective way of supporting the local voluntary sector as a whole.

So what should trusts and foundations be doing? The Commission on the Future of Local Infrastructure suggests that a good place to start would be for national funders to work with local community foundations. This can anchor funding within the local area, giving local people greater say in how they address problems in their communities.

The Community Foundation serving Tyne & Wear and Northumberland, for example, has successfully partnered with a number of major foundations, including Henry Smith and Esmée Fairbairn, to attract funding to the area and support local charities’ applications.

A Northern Powerhouse in philanthropy would, therefore, build the necessary infrastructure to supporting healthy and vibrant local voluntary sector ecosystems. But if that isn’t incentive enough, then please think of me—it would really assuage my guilt for leaving the North!

A version of this blog was first published by Spears Magazine as part of our philanthropy series.