Pilotlight reflects on its first year of running the awards with the Garfield Weston Foundation  


Robbie Cowbury


When the Garfield Weston Foundation approached us about working together to launch a brand new award for charities we knew it was a great idea, but we never expected the response from charities to be quite so overwhelming. When the first Weston Charity Awards launched last January in the north east, over 100 organizations applied and six winners were selected, based on their inspiring work in the fields of youth, welfare and community.

This year the Weston Charity Awards are expanding to include charities right across the north of England. This time there will be 12 winners who receive a year of strategic planning support from senior business leaders through our charity, Pilotlight, as well as funding from the Garfield Weston Foundation. The awards are designed to enable charities to develop, raise their profiles, become more sustainable and face the future with greater confidence. By funding Pilotlight to deliver the support, the foundation is also helping us meet our mission to reach more charities throughout the UK.

But one year on, and with our 2014 award winners already working with their business teams, what have we learned?

Delivering the awards has demonstrated more than ever the effect that funding cuts are having on charities in the north east and the increasing number of vulnerable people who need these organizations, often describing the support from these charities as a ‘lifeline’.

One of the award winners, Horden Youth and Community Centre, has worked hard to provide support over the years to local residents and deliver services, such as job clubs, education support and training, as well as leisure activities. Over 40 percent of adults in Horden have no formal qualifications and unemployment rates are high. HYCC manager Steve Clark says:

‘People tell us that if it wasn’t for our help, they’d be stuck in the house doing nothing. We know that social isolation is a big problem and we’ve also seen a rise in the number of mental health issues – we are expecting that to get worse.

In the last year we have seen an increase in people needing welfare advice after being caught out by the bedroom tax. We’ve also seen a lot of demand for help with basics, such as food, and we’ve been connecting people with food banks. What’s surprised me is that these are people who you wouldn’t ordinarily think need help but they’ve lost their job and just can’t cope.’

The awards have also been a powerful reminder of how charities can benefit from the skills of business leaders in these difficult times when strong leadership, good governance and a commercial outlook may be the ‘lifeline’ that these charities need to survive and thrive.

Running a series of ‘connect sessions’, as part of the awards, has enabled this diverse range of organizations that share a common geography, to come together to learn from each other and promote best practice in their fields.

We’ve also found that working closely with a funder in this unique way has been exceptionally powerful and well received by the charities involved. Charities desperately need funding, but they don’t just want money, they want to be better as well. The two are mutually beneficial – dare I say symbiotic? The funding from Garfield Weston enables the charities to have the headspace to make the most of the capacity-building support we offer. Yet, this support also helps the money go further by having a longer-term impact.

It has been fascinating to work with a high-profile foundation such as Garfield Weston, and we have found some interesting similarities when it comes to working with charities. The initial impetus for the creation of the Weston Charity Awards came about because the foundation was seeing a decline in funding applications from charities in the north east, at a time when they had expected demand to rise because of government cuts. At Pilotlight, while we often have many charities applying, we put a lot of effort into helping organizations through the process – from the initial application to starting work with their business coaches. So, it’s been enlightening to see the work that funders put into encouraging and guiding applications.

I can imagine being a funder can sometimes be like being the boss on the work social – no one quite feels able to let their hair down while you are there. As a charity ourselves, we often have to find and apply for grant funding, and because of our model we spend a lot of time with charities at every step of their journey – I think this has given us a particular insight into the barriers they face and the language that appeals to them, which has helped with the application process and designing the programme.

Launching the second year of the Weston Charity Awards across the north of England, including both rural areas and cities such as Leeds, Sheffield, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle and Hull, feels like a huge step forward and we hope to continue to expand to other regions in the future.

Find more information about the Weston Charity Awards 2015 here.

Robbie Cowbury is a project manager at Pilotlight and a trustee of social enterprise Mindapples.

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