Why local philanthropy must be included in the Levelling Up agenda


Rosemary Macdonald


This month, the Queen’s speech unveiled the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill. The Bill will set out the Government’s proposals to reform the planning system. But what remains unclear is the role that philanthropy will play in all of this.

As the membership body for the UK’s 47 accredited community foundations, we know that for decades there has been work happening to address regional inequity and create opportunities in all areas of the UK. Local philanthropy has been integral to meeting the needs of communities over the years.

In a way, ‘levelling up’ has been at the forefront of our work from the beginning. There is a wealth of place-based community expertise, knowledge, and insight out there that should not be overlooked in the Levelling Up agenda.

There is no need for us to get into the age-old debate of state versus philanthropy. We have always been very clear that philanthropic funding should complement, rather than replace, state funding; it’s not a case of either/or. There is unique additionality that philanthropic funding can bring to communities, as it can work in a more agile and dynamic way to public funding.

The added value of local philanthropy

In the White Paper published in February, ‘social capital’ was identified as one of the key factors that will help drive the Levelling Up agenda. This means trying to boost the ‘strength of communities, relationships and trust’. Alongside this, restoring ‘Pride in Place’ is one of the core Levelling Up missions. Although difficult to quantify and measure, there is no doubt that locally generated philanthropy, targeted at local need, is already a key contributor to these aims.

I was the CEO of Wiltshire Community Foundation for 12 years before becoming CEO of UK Community Foundations in 2020. Throughout the years, I’ve been in countless conversations with donors encouraging them to give locally. By doing this we actively engage our donors with the needs of the communities they live and do business in. We build bridges between the private and social sectors. We help evidence the incredible work of our local voluntary sector and identify the challenges they face. We get people from across society in a room together, with a common goal to tackle these issues. In our increasingly divided country, this is a powerful tool.

Here’s how it works on the ground:

  • Northamptonshire’s Community Conversations events brought together local donors and local charities to have a solution-focused discussion centred around Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Each event developed a series of actions that Northamptonshire Community Foundation would take forward.
  • The Deciding Together sessions held by the Two Ridings Community Foundation brought together charity workers, council staff and people who have lived experience of accessing services, to decide how £250,000 of funding will be distributed to address the root causes of multiple complex needs in York.
  • Many community foundations also run ‘Giving Circles’. This is where donors come together to pool funds which are then targeted at specific areas of local need. It increases the impact of their donations and raises awareness of key local issues. Here’s an example of how it works in Northern Ireland.

These examples are just a snapshot of the collaborative work happening across the community foundation network that has been enabled by local philanthropy.

As well as bringing people together, place-based philanthropy encourages a better, more sustainable way of giving. It enables donors to engage with their giving in a more strategic way. It recognises that deep-seated inequalities are not addressed overnight. It looks at issues holistically and marries the wishes of donors with the needs of diverse communities. It relies on, and is sustained by, local people and businesses who are vested in seeing a better outcome for their communities and places. Surely this is at the heart of what levelling up should be about?

Encouraging local philanthropy in the UK

There are many ways to boost local philanthropy, as Helen Barnard of Pro Bono Economics has outlined. The most obvious is a government-backed Levelling Up match-funding scheme. This has been successful in the past. In 2012 we ran the Community First programme. This was a £50m government-backed endowment match funding scheme that ran until 2015. Match funding is an effective way of encouraging giving in areas of the UK where there isn’t a strong philanthropic tradition.

Local people, donors, and charities all know what’s best for their communities. They have proved it time and again over the years. It’s high time we recognised that.

Rosemary Macdonald is CEO at UK Community Foundations.

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