Turning the page – a new Chapter for BIG

This is a guest blog by Peter Ainsworth, UK Chair of the Big Lottery Fund. Peter Ainsworth is an Environmental Consultant and a founder member of the Robertsbridge Group. He was previously a Director of Corporate Finance in a major Investment Bank.

peter_ainsworthI have now spent around nine months as the UK Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (BIG) and the day of the NCVO’s Annual Conference is a good time to reflect on our relationship with the voluntary and community sector and the topical discussions about how BIG relates to Government.

The first nine months – no need to rip it up and start again

One of the things that attracted me to taking on a role at BIG was the ethos and mission which underpins the organisations work – bringing real improvements to communities and people most in need. This simple but powerful message works for BIG so why tinker with it? At the same time I want to stay open minded and think about how we could have an even bigger impact, with the public money we distribute.

When I’ve been lucky enough to see first-hand the difference Lottery money makes (the best bit of the job by the way), it’s also clear that small pots of funding can make a huge difference at a local level. Our open, small grants programmes like Reaching Communities and Awards for All provide something special and we forget that at our peril.

But that doesn’t mean we can’t get better at what we do

I want BIG to take an honest look at itself and find ways of increasing our impact. We need to keep improving year on year. Like so many, we are trying to deliver more with less. Along with all Lottery Distributors, we’ve been asked to reduce our costs. We will do this, but the key challenge – and we are determined to meet it – will be reducing costs whilst sustaining and improving quality of what we do. All at a time when demand for our funding is as high as ever. Did anymore spot the challenge there?

What next? for BIG?

In the next few weeks we plan to announce our refreshed Strategic Framework – Fresh Thinking, which maps out our journey to 2015. As I mentioned I don’t think there is any need to rip it up and start again, but as the biggest single funder of the voluntary and community sector it would be remiss of BIG not to use this opportunity to support organisations to respond to the changes that are taking place all around them.

Adding value, Not replacing

I know BIG’s autonomy is something NCVO has been asking for your views on and it has also been a feature of a recent research study about BIG’s impact on the sector, conducted by the Third Sector Research Centre (TSRC).

BIG doesn’t work in a vacuum and our activities should complement those of others. But let me get something very clear. Additionality is vital to BIG. I wouldn’t have taken on the role without it. In a previous life I defended those principles in Parliament and I remain committed to them now. I certainly don’t plan to be the Chair of a piggy bank, which gets dipped into when exchequer coffers are stretched.

What next? For the VCS?

As with BIG, I don’t feel the sector needs to rewrite the book. It does so much right. But as funding cuts bite, finding ways to demonstrate the impact the VCS can have on the ground becomes even more important. BIG has as one of its main objectives supporting the voluntary and community sector (VCS) to become more effective. The skills, abilities and resources of grant holders are crucial to the success of the projects we fund. Indeed our Building Capabilities discussion paper in England is one example of how we’re inviting those working in frontline and infrastructure organisations to influence our approach and shape our future funding. Check out the details and complete the survey to have your say (deadline 15 March).

We also want to work to support the voluntary and community sector to build partnerships, including making better links across sectors. It is crucial that organisations know what is going on around them and work with others in a way which means the biggest impact for the people they are trying to support. If BIG can help to do this, and achieve better outcomes into the bargain that’s got to be a good thing.

New and Emerging

I know some may have reservations about BIG’s desire to collaborate more with the private sector and our ambition to develop ways of supporting social investment, alongside our bread and butter grant making. But in my book it is an opportunity too good to miss. Social Investment will remain a very small element of what BIG does. We recognise that it’s not the right solution for every organisation but it would be foolish for us to close the door to new and emerging models for meeting need at a local level. Likewise if collaboration across sectors – including the private sector – can bring about better outcomes then we want to support communities to capitalise on those opportunities.

So we won’t be losing sight of the impact that small local grants can have. They are and will remain a vital part of our offer. Likewise additionality is here to stay. Rest assured, in writing BIG’s next chapter we won’t be rewriting the book.

Peter Ainsworth

Thanks to Peter for sharing his thoughts with us – if you want to find out more about working with funders or developing a more sustainable income model take a look through the links below.
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