Oliver Williams is the Head of Grants – South at Lloyds Bank Foundation. He joined the Foundation in July 2018 from Premiership Rugby, where he looked after the national education, health, social inclusion and capacity building community programmes delivered by England’s professional rugby union clubs.
He previously held roles in small charities and trade unions mainly focused on education, social mobility and youth leadership.
I’ve had an absolute whirlwind of a first year here at the Foundation and have learned plenty. Not only how the office hot water tap works and where Corby is, but also what life is really like for the organisations and people working on the frontline to address complex social issues across England and Wales. There’ve been plenty of lightbulbs switching on, pennies a-dropping and realisations a-dawning, but these are the ones that loom heavy on my mind.
- Small charities do the complex stuff that larger charities (and the state) won’t touch
We read all about it in the Value of Small research last year, but the charities we work with really are more impactful, resourceful and responsive than their larger counterparts. I’ve seen and heard this time and again, in lots of different ways, and it makes me very proud to work for a funder with such a strong belief in and commitment to this part of the sector. But it’s not just how small charities work that makes them special, it’s what they do as well. Many of the small charities I’ve seen have been doing extremely complex, long-term, fiddly, sometimes controversial work, with those facing disadvantage at its most acute, that larger charities, let alone the state, simply wouldn’t touch.
- The sector is stretched beyond belief
As highlighted in A Quiet Crisis, spend on disadvantage is actually decreasing nationally in spite of rising demand and cost. Most worrying of all, 97% of the reductions have come in the most deprived areas of the country, a fact that is well reflected in what charities in these areas are telling us. Demand is rising, funding is ever harder to secure and the operating environment ever more challenging.
- Mental health and wellbeing is something we’re going to need to address
It was on my third day that I first saw a charity CEO in tears, exhausted and overwhelmed with the scale of the need and the challenge of meeting it. It was around week four that I read about the charity who had a third of their team on long-term sick. It’s a worrying trend that we’re all seeing; a sharp increase in workplace stress, long-term sickness and mental health problems amongst both themselves and their teams. It’s a trend that I fear will define the sector over the next five years, which is why we’re already thinking hard about how we can help address this. We won’t be able to do this alone though, so I urge infrastructure organisations, larger charities and funders to join with us to do what we can to support those working on the front-line.
- Learning from each other
Yes it’s a cliché. Yes, you could spend your entire working life in the queue for coffee at conferences and seminars and events and roundtables, half-heartedly asking the person in front “and have you had far to come today?”, nodding knowingly as they describe the problems on the branch line from Nuneaton. But sharing our experiences, lessons and perspectives as a sector, being generous with our time, knowledge and skills, is what can truly set us apart from the daftly competitive private sector, or the terminally siloed state. Setting aside the time to learn from each other, should be just as important as core activities, and we as a Foundation are committed to making this as easy and engaging as possible through our Learning and Networks programme.
- We really can make things a bit better for small charities
All of this has put us to work thinking about what more we can do to make things easier for small and local charities. We’ve already started to overhaul our processes, making good on our commitment to reduce bureaucracy, and give applicants a much clearer idea of the likelihood of success. We’re also looking hard at Enhance – our funder plus programme designed to support charities to develop, ensuring that it has something to offer everyone, from a volunteer-led community group to a fast-growing refugee support charity.
This is a fascinating, challenging and privileged place to work. The team we’ve got is the best, the resources we have are significant, and the profile we’ve built is powerful. We’ve started to grapple with these themes already, but I’m raring to commit my Difficult Second Year to doing even more.