Local people often have the best understanding of problems where they live. That's why the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland jumped at the chance to be the first UK grant-maker to take part in the Vital Signs project - a scheme that began in Canada and seeks to identify how donors can address the challenges faced by communities.
The foundation carried out a pilot project, looking into practical steps that could be taken to address issues in Tyne & Wear, then a similar one in Northumberland, at the same time as seven other regional community foundations also carried out schemes under the Vital Signs banner.
"We asked local people and organisations to tell us what their priorities were where they lived," says Lisa Cappleman, head of philanthropy development at the grant-maker. "We listed 12 themes - including work, fairness, housing, learning, the arts, environment, community, health, civil society organisations and young people - and graded each one to say how the area was doing in each."
The data, Cappleman says, will serve to motivate prospective donors to put money towards specific issues.
However, the foundation does not target charities in particular cause areas, and applications for funding are welcome from community groups and charities across the spectrum, provided they are located in north-east England. National charities can receive funding if they have a strong local presence. Most successful applicants will receive grants worth £5,000 or less, but larger amounts are occasionally available.
Income for the foundation is a combination of returns generated by its £52m endowment - the largest of any community foundation in the UK - and donations from individuals and businesses. Donors can establish named funds within the foundation and set the criteria for causes the fund will support. "Some people choose causes close to their heart - or, if they're a business, that fit with their strategy," says Cappleman.
Donors might be invited to project visits to meet people who have benefited from their donations. The foundation awarded more than £5m in the financial year 2013/14, the largest of which was £100,000 to the North East Autism Society. The grant, which was used for capital costs, came from the Henry Smith Charity, which has a grant programme covering north-east England that the foundation manages.
When it comes to applications, the foundation tries to be understanding. "Some groups are not very good at completing applications, but the work they do is excellent," says Cappleman. "You've always got to keep that at the back of your mind and think: is there something in this? Should we go and chat with them? Just because they've not put it on paper well doesn't mean we wouldn't consider them."