U.K. community foundations are going the distance

In 1989, Penny Johnstone embarked on her first across-the-pond adventure — traveling from Bristol, England, to San Diego, Calif. — to learn more about the community foundation concept so she could promote it. As director of the Greater Bristol Trust, one of fewer than a dozen community foundations in the U.K. at the time, Johnstone was determined to know how to operate a publicly owned, place-based grantmaking institution that collected local funds to meet immediate needs while simultaneously growing a pot of money to address future challenges. It was a new concept that wasn’t easily explained or understood, yet it carried great potential, she said.

“What appealed to me was the community aspect of funding,” Johnstone said. “Community foundations were not just about giving handouts to local organizations but actually asking them, ‘What do you see as the need, and how can we help you address it?’ We were inviting others into our discussions about giving.”

Today’s broad base of financial backing for community foundations brings a smile to Johnstone’s face. Throughout the U.K. — England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales — residents, corporations, funding institutions and governmental bodies support these institutions as effective vehicles for addressing local issues such as unemployment, environmental concerns, elder care and preschool education.

Penny Johnstone

Penny Johnstone, first director of Greater Bristol Trust (now called Quartet Community Foundation)

Although the first community foundation in the U.K. was established in 1975, Johnstone and others said the idea didn’t gain national momentum until after Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) and the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation linked arms in 1988 to support a program to promote the field’s growth and development. Then, in 1990, Mott issued a £1 million challenge grant to help build permanent funds, or endowments, at U.K. community foundations to ensure their long-term sustainability. The grant was matched with £1 million from CAF for a then-combined equivalent of $3.2 million that would be awarded for endowment-building grants through a competitive application system.

Ten emerging community foundations participated in the rigorous application process, which they described as a valuable learning exercise itself. However, just three, including the Greater Bristol Trust, now known as the Quartet Community Foundation, were selected to receive the endowment money. Each of the three successfully raised additional monetary matches on a 2:1 ratio. The other two endowment grant recipients were the Tees Valley Community Foundation (previously known as the Cleveland Community Foundation) and Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland. In the two dozen years since the challenge grants were announced, the three foundations have raised additional endowment funds that, when combined, total about £85 million today.

St Werburghs City Farm volunteers

Volunteers help with upkeep at the St Werburghs City Farm — an oasis in the heart of Bristol, U.K., which is supported by the Quartet Community Foundation.
Photo courtesy of Quartet Community Foundation

“The endowment challenge was enlightening for the board. It created a real focus and prioritized endowment-building,” said Alice Meason, a longtime Quartet employee who today serves as its grants director. “We were raising money and spending it. What came in the front door went straight back out. But the endowment challenge came along and made us think more long-term.”

Today, Quartet is a local mainstay. Among other issues, it is known for supporting programs that:

  • address residents’ drug addictions;
  • aim to reduce unemployment by providing micro loans for new small businesses; and
  • engage refugees and those seeking asylum in social activities.

The board and staff at the Quartet regularly review their programs to ensure they keep in step with the region’s changing needs, said CEO Caroline Duckworth. In addition, she stays abreast of field-wide changes by serving on the board of UK Community Foundations, a national support association for the country’s 46 accredited community foundations. Created in 1991 with partial Mott funding to strengthen and link the field more broadly, the association provides opportunities for community foundation practitioners to learn from one another in several ways, including through participation in a biennial membership meeting. In 2013, Bristol hosted the event.

In fiscal year 2013, Quartet made 944 grants totaling £2.5 million and had year-end assets of £19.5 million. That represents substantial growth since its first year in 1986, when assets were £50,000 and grants were made to 19 organizations that totaled £21,000. However, the foundation’s success is based on more than its increased assets and bigger grantmaking budget, Duckworth said.

“It’s not just about making grants, but measuring the impact of that grantmaking,” she said. “We continually ask, ‘How are we helping improve the lives of the people in our area?’ Our goal is to provide leadership and a safe space to make things happen.”

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