Fabian French became the chief executive of UK Community Foundations at the start of 2015, and one of his main goals was to raise the profile of this network of 48 community foundations.
Just over a year later, the signs are promising. When a plane crashed during the Shoreham Airshow last August, it was the local Sussex Community Foundation that created the biggest fund and gained publicity in the national media. And when the winter floods affected Cumbria and other parts of the UK, community foundation appeals were the subject of widespread coverage in the media.
French qualified as a lawyer and worked in the City before his previous job as director of fundraising at the cancer charity Marie Curie. Since moving to UKCF, he says, it has carried out a focused awareness programme with influencers such as politicians, philanthropists and certain parts of the media. "It is really through a targeted approach to those constituencies that we have raised our profile," he says. "But there is considerably more work to do. Community foundations are often referred to as the UK's best-kept secret - I do not consider that to be a compliment."
UKCF is the national body for all these community foundations, which between them hold endowments worth about £500m. On average, they distribute somewhere between £65m and £70m a year to local charities and community groups, mainly in grants of a few thousand pounds.
A book published recently by the academics John Mohan and Beth Breeze estimates that community foundations typically raise between £4 and £5 per head of population in the UK each year, but points out that local communities are having to contend with cuts of about £250 per head in local public funding. French believes the amount community foundations receive per head of population is about £7, based on the latest endowment figures, but he concedes that the sums they currently raise are not enough to help them meet all the local need.
UKCF hopes to address some of this need by attempting to double community foundations' collective endowment to £1bn by 2020. "On the one hand that sounds ambitious," says French. "But if you look across the Atlantic you'll see that there are 12 community foundations with endowments of more than $1bn, and the largest has one of $7bn. That tells me we're only scratching the surface."
He hopes to achieve much of that growth by building on the number of individuals, businesses and trusts that want to give locally through their community foundations. "There is an increasing emphasis on giving locally," says French. "People understand that the need is not going away but the funding is. Informed people understand that they need to be supporting their community to make sure it continues to flourish."
Charitable trusts and foundations have been criticised in recent years for failing to work together to tackle ingrained social problems. French points out that UKCF runs programmes on behalf of major funders such as Comic Relief and the London Olympic legacy charity Spirit of 2012, and individual community foundations also distribute funds on behalf of major funders. But he says there is a need for place-based funding to work efficiently, and community foundations are at the heart of the discussions taking place on this issue.
The recent flood appeals run by community foundations have so far raised more than £10m, which includes match-funding from government totalling £2.6m. But French believes government has a greater role to play in supporting the work of local foundations. "Government does appear to understand the catalytic effect of match-funding programmes," he says. "That said, we're seeing much less match-funding than we did in the last parliament. There are a number of small examples of it, but what is needed is a considerably larger commitment from government departments. At the same time, the community foundation model is not dependent on match-funding."