BLF’s small grants programmes should be all things to all people
In Kevin Curley’s recent Third Sector commentary about what the Big Lottery Fund might be up to he referred to my work shadowing leaders of small charities, something he kindly kicked off for me back in 2008.
When I arrived at BIG there was some suspicion as to whether an ex-Civil Servant who had spent the last 10 years in and around a Whitehall education department would “get” the realities of what life was like running charities at the front line of helping many of the most vulnerable in society. In addition, there’s a constant danger that leaders of big organisations become detached from those they need to work successfully with and through. Kevin was onto this immediately and I was keen to respond positively. Having been reminded of those early visits, there are at least three insights that have influenced my work at BIG ever since.
First, though he didn’t know it, Kevin sent me to a charity that only days before had been rejected at the final hurdle for £500k of Big Lottery fund cash it desperately wanted. The BIG machine would never have chosen to send me there! In terms of feedback, the charity had received general encouragement but had basically been told there was not enough money to go round. This was essentially true. Nevertheless, there’s always some reason why decision makers favour one application over another. I left determined to ensure that we never again rejected an applicant who had completed a substantial application form without giving more useful guidance on why they missed out.
The next insight occurred when a second charity took me round the back of a local Lidl to an unprepossessing church hall in which an explosion of enthusiastic community-based activity was taking place. Literally scores of people stopped what they were doing briefly to hear from me about what small grants were available from the Big Lottery Fund to help them on their way. Most of them had never heard of us. Many were perfectly happy to get on with what they were doing without the perceived palaver of getting cash from us. But a determination to connect with “below the radar” groups who may not want to remain there stuck with me. Having arrived at BIG and made a succession of speeches saying we could no longer be all things to all people, I rapidly concluded that, at least so far as our small grants were concerned, we should be. These should absolutely offer easy to access, fast turn around awards essentially driven by what mattered most to local people determined to improve the quality of life in their area, whatever that might be. I still enjoy nothing more than getting out into communities that really ought to be accessing more Lottery cash to help them understand what is available.
My third insight occurred when one of my work shadowing opportunities was abruptly cut short. The chief executive concerned faced an urgent choice – gabbing away to me or getting to Ryman’s before closing time. He was the only one of three workers with a car. They had no toner. No toner meant no printer. No printer meant no hard copy of a funding application which had to be returned in hard copy by last post that day. However grand the visitor might be, the realities of operational life and the essential need to secure further funding kicked in and the CEO made the right judgement. I was left to wander alone back to the railway station, suitably humbled by the dedication to duty this leader and so many others demonstrate day after day.