Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Community Foundation for Northern Ireland

At ACF's annual conference in November, a straw poll of delegates revealed that a majority were either undertaking or considering work that they broadly characterised as advocacy. In this series, we are speaking to members about how and why they promote greater representation to policy and decision-makers.

The fourth article in this series comes from Les Allamby, former Trustee of the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland.

This series first appeared in April 2018's Trust & Foundation News. Read the magazine here.

While the foundation has been doing advocacy work since its inception in 1979, in the last 10 years or more it has developed a great deal more coherence to its approach. So rather than just responding to and welcoming advocacy, it has now moved to trying to shape it in a positive way.

Part of that move has been to do with Northern Ireland itself – the fact that we are in a post-conflict world and still peace-building, the increasing numbers of minority ethnic communities, and the foundation leadership who understood that to create social change you have to link service delivery and grant aid to policy development wherever possible.

One strand was to develop new forms of grant aid. We were helped enormously by Atlantic Philanthropies funding the trust to develop programmes through a rights-based and social justice lens. So that gave us the opportunity to set up small grants for social justice initiatives and rights issues, for example, grants to encourage a grassroots response to the Bill of Rights consultation and discourse, part of the Good Friday Agreement. We also received some other external funding.

In addition, we encouraged existing grantees to look at their work through the rights-based lens. Those who need the rights most are the most marginalised and disadvantaged, and those were the sorts of communities and thematic groups we were working with. Some organisations already had a strong advocacy role, others we prompted to see their issue in a rights-based way. For example, in Northern Ireland there is no statutory duty to provide childcare, and unsurprisingly we were receiving many applications around childcare, so we encouraged people to focus on who should be providing it in the long term, rather than plugging gaps in one community or area.

One way to foster this approach was to offer mentoring support as well as small grants. For example, if a group wanted to start a food co-op, the mentor would help them to look at why that was needed and at the wider underlying issues around poverty, diet and affordability.

We also identified specific thematic groups in areas where rights are contested and some advocacy groups might be contentious – a pro-choice group in the reproductive rights space, for example. In addition, we set up a small grants fund for pressure groups, which was quite innovative.

Major EU funds were made available for work with Loyalist and Republican ex-prisoner organisations, which was too controversial for the Northern Ireland government to handle, so the community foundation stepped in and took the early risk. The prisoners’ organisations did some extremely innovative work and recognised the value of cross-community initiatives. Sadly, this work has still to be picked up by the Northern Ireland Executive.

The final strand involved a number of human rights NGOs. As Atlantic Philanthropies withdrew from Northern Ireland, they negotiated with the community foundation a long- term funding stream to ensure that both grassroots and broader advocacy human rights work would continue. It was based on matched funding and involved creating a Human Rights Fund to ensure that, for the reasonable foreseeable future, some key human rights NGOs survived. Peace-building work needs to lay down strong roots for the next generation and the generation after that.

We had very open discussions about the risk in our work. The trustees understood the risk, and did all we could to minimise it by using all of the accountability mechanisms and working very closely with the groups themselves. But we recognised that to be involved in peace-building and social justice issues, the risk is worth it in terms of value of work that could be done, and if we were not prepared to do it, very few other organisations would.

What we have learned is that there is not one way to do this work. You have to be open-minded and flexible, and accept that not every grant will flourish. If you only fund sure-fire winners, you will never do the innovative work that brings unexpected rewards. You also have to find ways to independently monitor and evaluate the impact and build that in, and stay connected to other organisations working in the field, see what you can learn, what the connections are, what might or might not be replicable, and share your own knowledge and experience.

An example of the scale of our work is the Crisis Fund. Around 10 years ago there was a paper written by Law Centre (NI) outlining how, with the change in immigration laws and arrangements for dealing with the EU accession states, undocumented migrants and so on, there was a need for a safety net for those who were either inadvertently or deliberately denied state support. Shortly after the paper was written, there was a terrible race hate incident where Roma were forced out of a working-class Loyalist area. Politicians wanted to help but there was no legislation to support finding the funds and little chance of political agreement. The Law Centre and the foundation set up meetings between local groups and civil servants, and the foundation established and ran a pilot scheme, including a programme for small grants to key organisations. Slowly but surely the model was proven, and the Crisis Fund is now managed by the Executive Office. Now that’s a result.

Les Allamby
Former Trustee
Community Foundation for Northern Ireland


Other articles in this series

Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Trust for London 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Millfield House Foundation   
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: The Robertson Trust 
Speaking Up and Speaking Out: Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust 

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