About this time last week, I was heading up to Glasgow for the UK Community Foundation Conference 2019, and as has already been commented, it seemed all at once a whole new cohort of staff had descended into the foundation world. Albeit, as CEO of Oxfordshire Community Foundation of almost nine years, I was obviously not one of the newbies!
Over dinner one evening at the Glasgow Science Centre, there was lively discussion around my table on whether the amount of time spent in a leadership role presented a challenge or opportunity to the organisation’s capacity to increase its impact. Much of the conversation focussed on the benefits of long-term relationships with key stakeholders and partners locally, often in stark contrast to those in the political sphere, which can come to an early end by the whims of voters.
The topics covered were similar to those facing many charities where the consequences of founder’s syndrome, succession planning and the importance of good governance and strategy should always be under consideration. However, it seemed there was both consensus and responsibility as individuals to be alert to complacency and cynicism taking root over time, and to focus instead on constantly challenging ourselves to deliver on the potential of longevity and tenure. For me this is a continuous curiosity and a growing urgency to join up the dots and advocate for much more strategic philanthropy in the courageous pursuit of solutions to the challenging social problems we face.
Perhaps an example of this in action was during the conference visits of projects funded by Foundation Scotland. I had opted to learn about the almost impossible restoration of an iconic landmark building formerly a Presbyterian Church in the West End of Glasgow. Websters, as it now known is currently a social enterprise labour of love for a Category A (that’s Scottish equivalent of Grade 1 Listing) building. Initial impressions were high, as the entrance from the pavement through a decorative flower arch signalled creativity and style. Even more surprising to find a gin bar (yet with eye watering prices), stained glass windows and a beautiful old cabinet salvaged from a chemist dispensary.
However, the reality of the task soon became apparent as we walked through into other areas of this vast building and found ourselves sat in a makeshift theatre, scaffolding clad in blue sheeting created a semblance of a space that cleverly disguised the state of the roof over 16 metres above us. Such is the dilemma for so many old buildings attempting to reimagine their role and purpose in our modern lives that suddenly, all I could concentrate on was the potential pitfalls of philanthropy when it was only focussed on the here and now as would have been the case when the church opened its doors in the 1850’s.
Interesting too, to then have this thought amplified in the round up of conference reflections when Niamh Goggin of Northern Ireland CF talking about the need for greater community involvement warned ‘don’t build it they won’t come’.
So perhaps the time has come to stop iconic ‘faith’ buildings from morphing into spaces to match our consumerist lifestyle, providing nothing more than a quirky experience in which to eat pizza, where any clues to the building’s historic past are cleverly disguised as though to hide a guilty secret.
Instead, how might we look to adapt and evolve the original philanthropic intentions associated with them, spaces that are often located in the heart of a community thus offering huge potential to bring people together and learn to be good neighbours to each other once again?
What struck me most was the potential of joining up the dots, however complicated , especially when so many of our current social systems seem no longer fit for purpose. I shared how brilliant it would be for charities engaged in building skills in those who struggle to find employment on release from prison being involved in such a restoration project. If this meant you could work alongside skilled tradespeople and there was real, purposeful work in terms of community-service available why would judges ever need to send people to over-crowded prisons for short-term sentences?
Not only could the economic savings be significant it would surely bring a welcome stop to the ever-increasing demand on charitable resources and endless seeking of heritage funds, if we found different routes to make things happen by working in a more ambitious yet socially conscious way.
For me I foresaw a different future for Websters one in which it became an exemplar of intergenerational living. It seemed the building exuded an energy and potential that offered a real tonic beyond the cocktail variety that immediately offered a non-sterile and welcome alternative to what has otherwise become the over institutionalised blue print of care homes and homeless hostels. Motivated by the desire to upcycle and reduce waste, with imagination , flair and community involvement surely it would be possible to see lots of different new people living in pods within the existing structure. Adding further life and memories into everything that celebrated its connections with its philanthropic past.
Jayne Woodley is Chief Executive of Oxfordshire Community Foundation