Highs and lows of a decade in the hot seat

Peruvian guinea pigs, Olympic raids: Stephen Dunmore, who steps down as chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund at the end of the month, looks back.

Stephen Dunmore
Stephen Dunmore

Some say 10 years is too long to be in one job, particularly as a chief executive. But for me it has never been less than exciting, and change has been constant and stimulating: building a new distributor - the New Opportunities Fund - from scratch, then, after five years, merging it with the Community Fund to create the Big Lottery Fund. But now, as we start to look to 2009, our next round of lottery funding streams and the opportunities of non-lottery funding, it's time to move on.

What have been the highs and the 'not-so-highs'? I will not miss the constant barrage of negative coverage, often politically inspired, from one or two national newspapers. Peruvian guinea pigs bred for food (a small and perfectly sensible Community Fund grant) are still, bizarrely, newsworthy 10 years on. Any funding to support the health and safety of sex workers (even after the murders of five prostitutes in Ipswich) is apparently deplorable. And grants for voluntary organisations, often collaborating with or endorsed by the Home Office, dedicated to meeting the needs of refugees and asylum seekers are clearly beyond the pale. Funders must stand up and be counted on such issues, handling media relations sensibly and professionally at the same time.

The way in which the Government's directions to the NOF moved from large, well-thought-out and high-impact strategic programmes (for example, healthy living centres, out-of-school-hours childcare, new opportunities for PE and sport) to the latest bright idea for a soundbite-friendly, small and unstrategic intervention was also disappointing. But it wasn't as disappointing as the Department of Health's 'command and control' approach to healthy living centres and fruit in schools, its reluctance to work in partnership and, eventually, its refusal even to discuss its original commitments to the sustainability of healthy living centres. Some primary care trusts and local authorities have, despite other pressures, picked up the baton.

I won't miss the sterile debates about additionality and independence (different but often confused), promoted by some politicians and parts of the voluntary sector. Lottery distributors, at the strategic level, were never wholly independent (they are all non-departmental public bodies) and additionality is about the nature of the value-added outcomes rather than the sectoral identity of the funded organisation, voluntary or public, or the degree of Government direction. Effective partnership working across sectors and real changes to the lives of communities are what really matter.

The obsession with independence and additionality in relation to lottery funding reflects a parallel obsession in parts of the voluntary sector. I will not miss that either. As Stephen Bubb said in his recent lecture at Cass Business School, when he quoted Jeremy Swain, chief executive of homelessness charity Thames Reach: "The idea of pure, absolute and sacrosanct independence, with no pressure whatsoever from funders and other stakeholders, is a bizarre holy grail of little interest to those working on the ground."

At a recent party conference, I was berated by a shadow minister who listed 10 BLF programmes that were supposedly not additional. Nine of them were NOF legacy programmes. Old mindsets die hard. We are no longer NOF, but why let the facts distract you from kicking a political football?

Olympic raid 'disappointing'

The resistance in parts of the Community Fund to the merger with NOF (once it had been announced by the Government) was inappropriate and ill-judged, with the result that the merger and restructuring were twice as difficult as they needed to be. The suspicions and negativity that were created misled external stakeholders and meant that some Community Fund staff suffered because they felt unable to sign up to the new organisation.

Nor will I miss the small minority of applicants for funding who assume that, if you reject their application, you must be malicious, corrupt, incompetent, biased or racist, or a combination of all of those. We do sometimes make mistakes, which is why there is a published complaints procedure with an independent reviewer at the final stage. Given that applications exceed funds severalfold, we are working to manage public expectations and provide better feedback.

Lastly, the transfer from 2009 of substantial lottery funds to the Olympic infrastructure was disappointing for us and our stakeholders. We believe, nevertheless, that we can make a substantial contribution to the legacy of the Olympics in the UK.

In the grand scheme, however, all of these not-so-highs have been challenges to be dealt with. The highs of the past 10 years are the real story.

Surviving the merger

I have been fortunate to work with three excellent chairs - Jill Pitkeathley, Diana Brittan and Clive Booth. I have learnt from them, too - not least that an effective working relationship between chair and chief executive is essential if non-departmental public bodies (and third sector organisations) are to succeed. The mantra must be "no surprises".

The resilience and dedication of BLF staff has been remarkable - especially those from NOF and the Community Fund who 'survived' the rigours of the merger. Invariably, the 'survivors' were people who embraced change and new ways of working.

The decision in 1998 to create NOF, re-orientate lottery funding to boost health, education and the environment, focus more on revenue and promote social inclusion and access has transformed lottery distribution in the past decade, for the benefit of communities and those most in need.

The successful negotiation of a new and appropriate relationship between the fund and the Government, enshrined in the National Lottery Act 2006, has resolved the issues of additionality and independence. All lottery distributors have parity. The Government sets the strategic framework and distributors are free to determine their funding programmes, how much should be allocated to them and how they will be delivered, and to make decisions on project applications.

There is now a positive definition of additionality agreed by all parties: "Lottery funding is distinct from government funding and adds value. Although it does not substitute for exchequer expenditure, where appropriate it complements government and other programmes, policies and funding." All distributors now report annually against this definition. We did so very fully in our recent annual review, which also reported on progress in relation to our undertaking that 60 to 70 per cent of BLF funding will go to the third sector (the current figure is 84 per cent).

The BLF has made great strides towards being a more intelligent funder - including full cost recovery, five-year funding, a simple outline proposal form and improved feedback for rejected applicants. We have strengthened our support for applicants - in England, through our reshaped regional offices.

Engaging more people in the benefits of lottery funding has been another high. TV voting - The People's £50m Lottery Giveaway contest and our regional People's Millions competitions for grants up to £80,000 - have caught the public imagination. But there are other ways of engaging communities in decision-making. The Fair Share Trust is midway through its 10-year programme, with the Community Foundation Network allocating its endowment to local areas where communities themselves decide how the money should be spent.

Our plans for after 2009 are taking shape. We will be ready to consult this year, but are persuaded that a portfolio with many different programmes (as is the case in England) may not be the best and most applicant-friendly approach.

Beyond 2009

Whatever direction we take will be in the context of developing the BLF as an intelligent funder, with a focus on strategic vision, funding outcomes, sharing evaluation and providing non-financial support for applicants and grant-recipients. I am pleased that we have been able to work with the Association of Charitable Foundations to create the Intelligent Funding Forum, bringing together funders interested in taking forward these ideas.

Our grant assessment and management systems and our service to customers are good and improving, but we aspire to be genuinely leading-edge. We have launched a major project to re-examine, with our stakeholders and customers, all those systems in preparation for 2009. Meanwhile, the fund is, I believe, generally perceived as highly professional and competent. The Government's willingness to engage us in the delivery of both exchequer and dormant accounts funding is testament to that.

The devolved arrangements for the fund - country committees with clout in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and country-specific funding programmes - have been a plus. The challenge will be to maximise the benefits of that diversity while maintaining the corporate vision and opportunities for learning in a UK-wide organisation.

And the best part of the job? Seeing the benefits of our funding in disadvantaged communities, often delivered by committed people in all sectors. A vibrant healthy living centre in Faversham, Kent; a state-of-the-art sports centre in Woodford, east London; the community in Gigha in the Hebrides buying their own island; public libraries wired up; a self-help group in Batley, West Yorkshire, tackling clinical depression; a women's centre in South Shields in Tyne and Wear; veterans returning to the Second World War battlefields; an allotment project for refugees and asylum seekers in Liverpool; a palliative care centre in Aberystwyth; and an astroturf area providing sport in south Belfast. All of these projects, and thousands more, are the fund's real highs. Mine too.

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