As County Durham Community Foundation “comes of age”, it has been revealed that it has passed the £30m milestone in grants handed out to good causes.

It is an inspirational journey which found its way to County Durham but began in the unlikely setting of the American midwest. An automotive pioneer called Charles Stewart Mott – an original partner in General Motors – had deep concerns about the welfare of people in his local community in Flint, Michigan, so he launched a charitable foundation to fund worthy causes. The Mott Foundation, launched in 1926, grew steadily into one of the world’s leading philanthropic institutions and inspired others to follow suit.

Fast forward to the early 1990s, and The Mott Foundation issued a challenge to the regions of the United Kingdom to raise £1m which would be match-funded, and it was that challenge which was to lead to the creation of the County Durham Community Foundation.

David Grant, the then Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, and Sir Paul Nicholson, Chief Executive of Vaux Breweries and Chairman of Tyne and Wear Development Corporation, were determined that County Durham should benefit in the same way that Flint had been supported through the vision of Charles Stewart Mott. Their discussions resulted in the County Durham Community Foundation being established in 1995, with initial funding coming from the charitable trusts of flagship North-East companies such as clothing manufacturer Barbour and house-builder William Leech.

Now, 21 years on, as the foundation comes of age, it is timely that the £30m milestone has been passed with a £10,000 grant to Age UK Darlington, which is being used to expand activities such as Pilates, sequence dancing, a choir, tai chi, walks for people with dementia, and – most popular of all – a thriving ukulele group. More than 50 people now attend the ukulele group and it has become so popular that it has had to be split into two sessions: one for beginners strumming their first chords; and one for the more advanced who are good enough to enjoy jamming sessions. Members range in age from 50 to 85 and its popularity grows by the week.

The grant was music to the ears of Age UK Darlington’s chief executive Gillian Peel. “The support of the community foundation is so important to us because it means we can expand our activities and, ultimately, that makes us more sustainable as an organisation because it brings more people in,” she says. Two thirds of the £30m distributed has come via the private sector, with the foundation now managing more than 200 funds on behalf of individual companies. The rest has come from the public sector which uses the foundation as a cost-effective way of issuing grants.

Crucially, there has also been a growth of 97 per cent in the foundation\’s endowment portfolio over the last five years, cementing the long-term sustainability of the organisation. There is now an extremely healthy £13m in the endowment pot, with four per cent being given out annually to good causes. More than 12,000 groups and individuals have now received grants, averaging just over £2,500.

Barbara Gubbins, who took over as Chief Executive of the foundation in 2008, says: “I think it’s astonishing that a relatively small county such as Durham has been able to generate such a large amount of money so quickly. We’ve certainly punched above our weight and the benefits have been spread from the grass roots, with the likes of scouts groups, brownies, luncheon clubs, and football clubs among the types of organisations receiving grants.”

The foundation has also developed an expertise in managing charitable funds for other organisations, such as health trusts and developers setting up environmental projects. The management of community funds emanating from the proliferation of wind farms has become a key function.

Tonight, at Business Central, on Central Park, in Darlington, the success of the community foundation will be celebrated at a gathering of business people and the first “Ingenious Funds” will be launched to tie in with the rebranding of Darlington as an “ingenious town”. “We wanted to be consistent with the way Darlington is being branded and, from now on, any grants given out in the Darlington area will come under the ingenious brand,” says Barbara.

The passing of the £30m milestone is undoubtedly a significant achievement but, with public sector cuts leaving big gaps in community funding, there are huge challenges ahead for the foundation.

Sir Paul Nicholson, whose initial discussions with David Grant were pivotal in the early 1990s, is now the foundation’s President. He is bursting with pride at how far the foundation has come but determined not to be complacent. “It is quite remarkable that County Durham, which is rated as one of the poorest counties in England, has one of the best community foundations,” says Sir Paul.

“Back in 1995, we could not have foreseen how things were going to develop but even now, by American standards, we are relatively small as community foundations go.”

“We fully intend that the next 20 years will be even more impactful than the last,” adds foundation Chairman Mark I’Anson MBE.

The aim is to double the value of the endowment fund and the amount of money given away in grants over the next two decades.

While the journey may have reached an important milestone – ambitious destinations are still in sight.

Credits: Peter Barron Media Ltd; The Northern Echo