Most Innovative Charity: Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, runner-up

The foundation's special skill lies in asking local communities how grant money should be spent.

James Magowan of CFNI with actor Joanna Lumley, the main speaker at the awards,
James Magowan of CFNI with actor Joanna Lumley, the main speaker at the awards,

Building community cohesion and tackling social injustice in a region torn apart by half a century of sectarian violence is not easy.

But this is the work the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland does. In fact, it has been so successful that it is exporting its model to communities in countries as diverse as Sri Lanka, Serbia and Colombia.

The foundation's core business is handing out grants to organisations fighting poverty and social exclusion, but its success has come from being driven by the people at the coal face.

"We didn't want people filling out forms, then asking us for money," says Avila Kilmurray, chief executive of the foundation. "So we developed a model of consensual grant-making that involved local people.

"We bring together local groups to identify the needs in their communities. They agree on a number of actions and decide how grant-giving needs to be carried out. Then we give them the money. We're transferring power to people who would otherwise have to come to us cap in hand."

The strategy is not without its problems. Given the depth of distrust in Northern Ireland, even getting people to sit around a table can be a difficult job. And the process is labour- intensive, even compared with the traditional process of application forms and interviews. But it is better than handing out cash unilaterally.

"If you hand out money in a community, whatever your intentions, you're often seen as favouring one side over the other," says Kilmurray. "If people decide themselves, they are working together to solve their problems."

The charity is bursting with other plans, such as depositing money in Charity Bank in exchange for investment in Northern Ireland, and helping Republican and Loyalist prisoners reintegrate into their communities.

But it is the idea of consensual grant selection that has set the world alight, with grant- givers taking it up in trouble spots where different communities live uneasily side by side.

"We realised that if you're in a society that isn't homogeneous, you need different skills," Kilmurray says. "This breaks down barriers. And it's gone down extremely well with the people we're trying to help."

 David Ainsworth

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