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How a small team at the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation has made a big difference during the pandemic




Michael O’Toole, chief executive officer of the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation. Picture: Keith Heppell
Michael O’Toole, chief executive officer of the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation. Picture: Keith Heppell

Many people throughout the county have been positively impacted by the work of the Cambridgeshire Community Foundation during the pandemic.

When the magnitude of the crisis started to unravel, a small team found a way to help the most vulnerable in society.

“At that time, in March, with the emerging threat of the coronavirus I thought pretty quickly we would need to have a funding response to it as it was going to have a pretty terrible impact in the community,” says CCF chief executive Michael O’Toole.

An appeal, supported by the Cambridge Independent, was launched. By last week, the Cambridgeshire Coronavirus Community Fund had raised more than £856,737 through donations, with £703,729 in grants awarded to a total of 181 charities and community groups.

The scale of that response – reducing a three-month grant process cycle to between five and 10 days turnaround – would suggest a large workforce but, really, that could not be further from the truth. Led by Michael, they number a total of five full-time staff and two part-time – Vivienne Atkinson, Sue Tilley, Beth Emmanuel, Sara Marshall, Bridget Mailley and Katrina D’Souza.

Nobody could have predicted what was around the corner entering the spring, but they were helped by an adaptation of working practices that had moved systems and processes online over a period of time.

“With that platform of technology behind us, we found that we could work pretty effectively and pretty quickly,” says Michael.

“It’s one thing having all the system and processes working so that you can award grants and accept applications, but it’s another thing to have the funding available to give the grants out. It wasn’t existing funding that we had sitting there, it was all new funding.

“Really quickly I went out to all those businesses and individuals, and indeed councils, that we’ve worked and said ‘this is what we think is happening’.

“It’s where the response started, those companies and people coming together and seeing what we were saying and putting funding into it, making donations.”

The small team of staff were assisted by lots of volunteers and many of the foundation’s trustees.

It helped to turn around grant applications in quick time, making sure that the due diligence was also in place.

The process was completely online, and working principally with those the foundation knew had a funding track record was another crucial point – they were able to act with possible third parties or in partnership.

Days became elongated, and defining a weekday from a weekend became difficult, and Michael admits that it was exhausting, but says: “Certainly in those first couple of months, knowing we could do something positive in a really difficult situation really gives you that energy to keep going.

“Initially it was that feeling of being able to do something positive in a bleak moment, and that motivated us, kept us going and gave us the energy to work some pretty ridiculous hours in those early days.

“It was quite scary and nobody quite knew how terrible the impact was going to be, the infection and death rates were climbing all the time. It looked very bleak.

“We knew that the grants we were giving out to the groups were making such a huge difference.

“It’s really tangible as well because we knew that those grants were being turned into people getting food, medicines, toiletries and activities to keep children happy and educated, really basic stuff.

“You just think if people aren’t getting access to that, a pretty awful situation for most people becomes an absolutely horrendous situation for those most vulnerable.”

While there is still hope that the foundation can reach the £1million target, the response is turning to the next phase.

In a survey of grant recipients, the foundation found that 77 per cent had a significant worry over financial stability and fundraising, 56 per cent saw an increase in need for their services or anticipate an increase in requests for services in the next six to 18 months, 48 per cent of groups have shifted to online or remote service delivery where possible, and 58 per cent of groups have had to end or reduce in-person programming.

The next phase will be about providing a bridge to long-term sustainability, and providing multi-year grants of £5,000 to £20,000 for up to three years.

The foundation is hoping that the business community and professional people may be able to help charities who are likely to have to adapt the way they work.

It means applications may have to be a bit more like a business plan, with the changes costed, but the aim remains to keep a shorter turnaround for the process – from two to four weeks rather than going back to three months.

“We think we need to be able to still respond with emergency grants for the foreseeable future,” says Michael.

“If we can get the funding available to get the longer-term, bigger grants to be a bit more strategic to help charities and groups adapt, then the process is definitely going to take a bit longer.

“We can’t go back to a situation where it’s taking three months because, sadly, some of these charities won’t be there in three months unless we can help.”

He adds: “The funding we’ve had has been amazing, but most of it is rightfully being given in grants in responding to the emergency so it’s not like we’re sitting on lots of money to shift to the next phase of helping charities adapt.

“We absolutely need more funding or we will not be able to do that.”

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