The sum of £110,000 to spend on anything you want, and an all-expenses-paid trip to the US for two people: it sounds like a competition prize. Actually, it's part of Bank of America's capacity-building programme for UK third sector organisations. The neighbourhood excellence initiative, launched in 2004, offers two charities a generous unrestricted grant and two places on a third sector leadership training course in the US.
This year's winners are Groundwork London and Quaker Social Action. Ben Coles, west London director of Groundwork London, was chosen to participate in the leadership programme. But he emphasises the importance of the grant. "The scale of the giving should be applauded," he says. "To get unrestricted funding is extremely rare, and that sort of approach allows the community and voluntary sector to focus on what it is good at rather than embark on this continuous cycle of chasing funding."
Groundwork is using the money to finance a merger of the four independent Groundwork trusts in the capital with Groundwork London. "It also allows us to reach more people with our services and achieve greater efficiency," says Coles.
Coles does have his doubts about the virtue of an environmental charity flying a manager to the US three times for a training course. But he does not question the value of the lessons learnt. "It's helping me to become a more effective leader myself, building on my strengths and recognising and tackling areas of improvement."
Coles and Lindy Kelly, executive director of Groundwork London, have joined senior managers from 45 US non-profits on the course, run by the Development Training Institute on behalf of the Bank of America. "It's fantastic to know that there are like-minded people in similar organisations dealing with the same challenges that we have," says Coles. The participants make commitments after each session and maintain email contact with each other so they can discuss how to deal with everyday problems.
For the Bank of America, the course highlights the importance of nurturing the next generation of leaders for voluntary organisations. "The feedback we get is that, although the money is very useful, the leadership training is seen as having more value, which is an indication that it is hitting the spot," says Beth Worrall, vice-president for global community impact at the bank.
Coles has attended two sessions so far, with the final one scheduled for October. He is writing reports after each one to share with colleagues. "When you go on holiday, people want to hear about how it's been and people here want to hear about what I've learnt," he says. "I'm quite mindful about sharing that."