Small, but perfectly formed
Dorset Community Foundation is a charity that helps other charities to obtain funding. David Callaghan looks at its work.
Published in January ’17
Not many teenagers dream of becoming an armourer – at least not in the historic sense of actually making weapons and armour – but then Jacob Bond never wanted to be like other teens. Although academically bright, a year ago he gave up sixth form at Poole Grammar School and turned his back on computer programming because ‘I was awful at it’ and cast a net for other opportunities. It wasn’t long before he determined to answer the call of his love of history and passion for making things and become a blacksmith. But with apprenticeships hard to come by and work experience almost impossible to get – it’s dangerous – blacksmithing is not the simplest career choice to make. Although Jacob was accepted on a course at Kingston Maurward College, his family’s financial situation meant he needed help to take up the offer of a place.
‘I don’t want to be the same as everyone else, I want to stand out,’ says Jacob, ‘but even with a bursary from the college, it would have been incredibly difficult for me to follow my dream. We get by but money’s short, so it made a massive difference to my life when I was told about Dorset Community Foundation and the help it can offer.’
Dorset Community Foundation (DCF) is a charitable foundation supporting smaller community groups, charities and individuals in Dorset by giving grants derived from funds it manages on behalf of local authorities, trusts, companies and individuals. In Jacob’s case, DCF pays for his bus travel from his home in Parkstone and funds the cost of his tools as he follows the City & Guilds Level 2 course in Welding, Fabrication and Blacksmithing that will forge his future.
Formed in 2000, initially to manage funds released by government to local authorities for grassroots projects, Dorset Community Foundation has evolved and now manages funds from a range of sources including Comic Relief and community funds for Bournemouth, Poole and Dorset councils, as well as corporate and private trusts. Part of the UKCF network of 46 community foundations, it is small in comparison to some – its total endowment is just less than £2 million, compared with more than £60 million managed by the biggest, Tyne and Wear – but over the past two years it has taken an increasingly proactive approach to getting new funds and raising awareness of its work.
A charity in its own right, DCF has just four employees and occupies office space at The Spire, the refurbished former Methodist Church on Poole High Street. It has distributed £1 million over the last two years to support hundreds of projects and individuals in need, with particular focus on helping young people develop the skills they need to get jobs, relieving isolation and fuel poverty among the elderly and alleviating mental health issues among the young.
‘Our average grant is only £2500, but we know from the follow-up reporting that we do for our funders that the money we give makes an enormous difference,’ says Tracy Melling, Chief Executive Officer. ‘Partly because we are quite small, we are able to move quickly to deal with situations of need. After the flooding in 2013/14, the government made funds available to DCF to distribute. In Dorset a lot of fishermen had lost equipment and their livings were threatened. We were able to compose a very simple two-page application form for registered fishermen to outline what they needed. Once an application was agreed, they were able to order the gear and we paid their suppliers – we saved the livelihoods of twenty fishermen that way.’
Dorset Community Foundation is emerging as a hub for giving in the county and welcomes enquiries from the many small charities that provide essential services to communities, like the Bus Stop Club in Ferndown. Run entirely by volunteers, it targets school-age families in East Dorset with services such as debt advice, victim support, family skills and a community café. It successfully applied for a £5000 grant to pay for three years’ staff costs for its weekly group for women living with the psychological and social effects of childhood trauma, including sexual abuse. Two parents from the project have since been signed off from social services and others recruited as volunteers.
‘I never cry in this job, but I could do most days. What is being achieved by these small groups is truly amazing,’ says Tracy. ‘As part of my job I’m able to take funders or would-be funders to meet some of the groups they help and sometimes individuals will take on the funding of a group or offer help in other ways. For example ASM, an engineering firm in Weymouth, offers things like work placements and site visits as part of a mentoring project we support at Wey Valley School, which is just beginning to show signs of success.
‘We’ve now started a second mentoring scheme at Blandford School in which the mentor is recruiting new volunteer mentors to work with students to raise aspirations and instil some self-belief. One of the advantages of Dorset’s ageing population is that there are retired people with all sorts of skills and experience out there who are often very willing to help out if they can.’
Dorset has a larger proportion of senior citizens than anywhere in the country and if current trends continue, it is estimated that by 2030, 40 per cent of the county’s population will be aged 65 or over. It is little surprise that one of the three sectors DCF has identified where its funds can make the greatest difference is the elderly, particularly in alleviating social isolation and rural deprivation. Its annual Surviving Winter campaigns encourage better-off residents who may not need their Winter Fuel Allowance to contribute it to a fund that enables the DCF to stave off fuel poverty among those in need.
Following its 2015 ‘Hidden Dorset’ report, the Foundation set up its Dorset Fund in order to concentrate efforts in three areas: Neighbourhood (primarily the elderly), Education (young people in training) and the soon to be launched Mental Health Fund, to improve the wellbeing of people with mental health and disability issues.
‘For the time being we don’t have money for environmental projects and we don’t fund animal projects, although we would look at schemes that use animals for other benefits,’ Tracy says, adding, ‘if a potential funder wanted to set up a fund in those areas, we are also here to help with that.’
As well as giving money out, Dorset Community Foundation has to get money in. It manages a range of funds already and takes a ten per cent fee to cover operating costs, but is actively seeking more and has focussed particularly on a wealth of dormant or moribund trusts it has identified. To date it has unearthed around £6 million in Dorset in funds that have fallen out of use.
‘These are funds that were set up historically, often to help very specific groups. For instance, we found a fund to help surviving pilots from World War 1 and a lovely trust that existed to provide wedding dresses for the young ladies of the village. Another trust that was set up in 1927 with £3000 is now worth £100,000, but could have been worth significantly more if invested using the DCF model. So we negotiate with the trustees of these funds to transfer their assets to us, or make us part of their succession planning, or agree to change the terms of the trust to better reflect today’s society.’
Dorset is part of a Charity Commission pilot to re-purpose funds held in trusts by parish councils and private individuals and the DCF has already recovered charitable trusts held by Dorset County Council that were thought to be worth about £125,000 but in fact amounted to more than £250,000. Far from replacing existing charities and community organisations, DCF is keen to collaborate to avoid duplication and make the most of people’s efforts and expertise.
‘People need help, but who do they turn to?’ asks Tracy. ‘If they come to us, we can point them in the direction of groups that might be able to help. Equally, if people want to help, we can advise on that so that rather than set up and manage a new charity, we can arrange a specific fund in their name and manage it for them, using our trustees and reporting back on all developments.’
Potential funders, be they corporate or high-net-worth individuals, can leave a legacy to the Dorset Fund that sets out terms and conditions for awards, while other funds can be invested and managed with the dividends used to feed to revenue fund.
What that looks like in the real world is a 17-year-old lad getting up at the crack of dawn to make a round trip bus journey of almost three hours so that he can pursue his dream of learning the heritage craft that underpins so much of the history he loves. ‘Next year I want to study for Level 3 and learn about financing and setting up a business,’ says Jacob Bond. ‘I’m learning quickly – when metal melts there’s no turning back – and I feel very at home with this work. I would love to set up a forge at home so that I can start taking a few jobs and give something back in return for getting this chance.’
If it does anything, Dorset Community Foundation aims to create possibilities where there might otherwise be none and whatever the whys and wherefores of home blacksmithing, there’s no denying Jacob’s enthusiasm is fuelled by the certainty that his irons are well and truly in the fire.
Dorset Community Foundation’s ambassadors include Lady Fellowes, Kate Adie and Sara Weld who, with her husband James, is to host an event on behalf of the Foundation at Lulworth Castle in March.