Ray Lewis, executive director of the Eastside Young Leaders' Academy, is arguably the most famous charity chief in Britain. His organisation, an after-school club that works to reform at-risk black boys, has been lauded by a former leader of the Conservative Party and singled out for an award by The Guardian newspaper. Then, in May, the new Mayor of London Boris Johnson asked Lewis to be his deputy. But Lewis's meteoric rise was stopped in its tracks when revelations about his past forced him to resign.
Like its founder, the academy is different. With an emphasis on strict discipline, marching and uniforms, an explicit rejection of liberal approaches to social problems and pride in its "testicular fortitude", it is not your run-of-the-mill charity. But despite the attention it has garnered, its track record is largely untested. As Lewis has said, it is hard to measure success because none of its graduates has yet reached adulthood. In short, no one really knows if it works.
But the academy is not the only maverick charity project that has been feted by politicians recently. Last February, Conservative Party leader David Cameron pointedly chose to make a speech on gun crime at the facilities of the United Estates of Wythenshawe, a community social enterprise based in Manchester that works in one of the poorest parts of the country. The group is managed by local residents - bouncers, pub landlords and boxing coaches - and deliberately targets young people who are involved in crime. Greg Davis, its director, is, like Lewis, scathing about the failure of establishment approaches - in this case, youth work provision in the area that attracts only 'nice' kids.
Not the usual suspects
Despite the endorsement from the Tories, Davis says the group still struggles to gain funding, from both public bodies and charitable trusts. "Our problem is that all funders have this view of what a community group, a voluntary group or a charity is," says Davis. "It's a standard format and, if you can't paint that picture, you're not going to get funding."
A major handicap, he claims, is that the management board at United Estates is made up of people from the local estate - of whom several are ex-offenders - and not of solicitors or teachers.
"One of the biggest issues is that the people involved are not the usual suspects," says Davis. "We're working with kids with criminal records - people thought it would never work. Sometimes it's easier to put money into a safe project." Despite the recently flurry of publicity and public concern over gun crime, Davis says "doors have still not opened".
So while politicians highlight radical new ways of dealing with entrenched social problems, are the sector's funders shunning innovation? Certainly, some parts of the funding community are temperamentally risk-averse. The Big Lottery Fund, for example, exercises great caution after repeated press exposures of allegedly controversial grant awards. Despite nominal independence, corporate foundations are usually acutely aware of the PR requirements of their parent companies.
But independent charitable foundations have more freedom to take a chance on new ideas. United Estates has secured some funding from the Execution Charitable Trust and the Copperdale Trust. Foundations such as the Tudor Trust, Barings, the City Parochial Foundation and UnLtd also have a reputation for being more experimental with their grant funding.
UnLtd is a foundation created to support social entrepreneurs "who want to change the world for the better". Cliff Prior, its chief executive, says that voluntary sector funding regimes tend to require evidence and data, which limits change to managerial improvement, rather than innovative leaps.
"What that means is, at the early stages of experimentation, when you need to come up with radical new ideas, things get left behind," he says. "In areas of failed social provision, you need to try radical things. These, by their nature, are high-risk and haven't been attempted before."
But completely new projects don't have solid evidence that they are effective, so how can funders decide that they might be worth supporting?
Some funders will admit that they work on hunches, but there are ways to make sure intuition is informed. One is through face-to-face contact with new projects - funders willing to back experiments tend to eschew application forms. United Estates won funding from the Execution Charitable Trust after being invited to visit its London offices. The City Parochial Foundation asks for proposals and then goes out to assess potential grant recipients in action. UnLtd decides whether to fund people based on 'person-to-person assessment'.
"At the first stage, our principal decision is on the quality of the person," says Prior. "For example, if you are working on gang culture and that person has been on the inside of it, they can understand how it works. They understand what draws young people into it and, because of that understanding, they stand a better chance than a very expert person coming in from the outside."
Prior concedes that this approach is subjective, but no more so than the ostensibly neutral application form. "Paper-based application systems are horrendously biased towards people who can write application forms, not people who have a successful project," he says.
Funders can also hedge their bets by offering small grants to completely new projects that promise a paradigm shift in how to approach social problems. UnLtd's starter grant scheme ranges from £500 to £5,000. "You'll find quite a lot of people risking money at the lower level," says David Emerson, chief executive of the Association of Charitable Foundations. "You won't find many giving £1m to a risky project."
They can also insure against the risk of failure by offering hands-on support. Projects funded by the City Parochial Foundation that are seen as 'risky' are given media training, evaluated by the Charities Evaluation Service and invited to learning seminars to share their experience. The foundation also tries to interest policy-makers and think tanks in an effort to push marginal work into the mainstream.
Whatever safeguards they put in place, foundations are always going to be confronted with the same dilemma: should they fund the new project that could potentially transform provision, or the existing project that they know is providing a good, if unspectacular service?
"You often know that funding a particular charity to work in a particular area is going to be good value," says Emerson. "Against this, you have Mr Whacky's project. It could be the solution to international poverty, but you're not going to know until you fund it."
CASE STUDY - LONDON BOXING ACADEMY
Opposite Tottenham Hotspur's football ground in north London, a windowless white building conceals a gym and a boxing club. But the club is not open to the general public, nor are those sparring in the ring or doing weight training attending voluntarily. The London Boxing Academy Community Project takes young people aged between 13 and 16 who are either excluded from school or sent there because their school simply can't handle them any more. According to Simon Marcus, its director, it houses "the toughest kids in Tottenham".
Perched in his office overlooking a lounge area where kids sprawl across sofas, Marcus, a former amateur boxer with suitably mauled ears, explains how he gave up a successful career in business to start the charity two years ago.
Down below, the kids no one else can deal with appear relaxed. The atmosphere is not threatening and, belying their reputation, the pupils are surprisingly well-versed in common courtesies. However, Marcus says that things "kick off" once a day and staff have to break up a fight - but it's never got so serious that the police have had to be called. The pupils like coming to the project so they never push things too far, he says.
The boxing and gym training are interspersed with a strict timetable of academic lessons. The teachers are employed by the right-wing think tank Civitas, one of the project's funders. At first sight, it's incongruous: intellectual, exceedingly well-spoken teachers holding classes with some of the most feared teenagers in the country. But Marcus says that results show it works- several pupils gain GSCEs, albeit with low grades.
Apart from some public money, the project relies on funding from trusts such as the Wates Foundation and the Tom ap Rhys Pryce Memorial Fund - both of which visited the project to see how it worked. But this is unusual. Most funders require an application form, says Marcus, and he wastes weeks of his time fruitlessly filling them in. "People don't want to visit us," he says. "They want us to fill in 40-page forms and then say no. It's frustrating."