NEWSMAKER: A new philanthropy - Marion Webster, Director, Community Foundation Network

Maria Clegg

Marion Webster came to London from Melbourne at the start of the year to spend nine months as interim director of the Community Foundation Network, the support body for local groups.

Her background is rooted in Australia's vibrant philanthropic sector, where she is a consultant, advising businesses, voluntary organisations and communities on sustainable social development. She was a founding executive director of Philanthropy Australia and the founding director of the Melbourne community foundation, the first in the country.

With mentoring from the Tyne & Wear and Northumberland foundation, the Melbourne counterpart's funds swelled to more than AU$11 million in the first four years. And her presence in the organisation's Kings Cross offices is fully in keeping with the Community Foundation Network's commitment to knowledge sharing.

"Effective, intelligent, social giving" is how Webster describes the community foundation model, now the fastest-growing form of philanthropy in the UK. The foundations themselves are local grant-making bodies which receive gifts - cash, trusts, bequests, shares or property - which are pooled into locally based, permanent endowment funds or ring-fenced funds that reflect the priorities of the donor companies or individuals. The Community Foundation Network was set up in 1991 to stimulate the growth of new foundations, develop and co-ordinate a code of good practice and encourage knowledge-sharing across foundations.

The philanthropist Andrew Carnegie said, "the man who dies rich dies disgraced", but the great advantage of community foundations is that you don't have to be dead or rich to give. "It's philanthropy for people who want to give during their lifetime, but want to do more than just write a cheque," says Webster. "The idea is to establish a fund while you're alive and experience the pleasure of being involved in giving," she says.

It's this level of involvement that sets community foundations apart from much of the voluntary sector. "Philanthropy is not a business, but you should be business-like in your giving," says Webster. "I say to company directors, 'would you give less thought to investing £100,000 in your business than you would to investing that amount in the community?' But in my experience, most donors have a good idea of how they want the money to be spent.

"We have to find a balance between accepting a donor's wishes and informing them about the level of need in the area to which they'd like to contribute.

We always work to match their interests with a local need, but if it was for another lost dogs' home, we might inform them about other potential areas of interest and need in their locality, particularly through site visits and donor briefings. Also, donors talk to each other and the great thing is that, as they become involved, they become much more informed and confident about their giving."

The Community Foundation Network won major recognition in 2001 when the Government's Children and Young People's Unit identified community foundations as the best partners for the Local Network Fund. This fund will support projects to tackle poverty and raise the aspirations of young people in deprived areas.

However, not everyone is so positive. Critics say that community foundations could actually create disparities by providing yet another resource to areas that are wealthy enough to create them. "The biggest community foundation in the UK is in Tyneside. That's not exactly known for being a wealthy area," argues Webster.

The network is keen to expand into areas where the very lack of social cohesion prevents the emergence of a community foundation. "We have a target of 90 per cent UK coverage by 2003, and we've just about achieved that," she says.

Webster's commitment to modern philanthropy is intensely personal as well as intellectual, and the Eastweb fund, which she set up in Melbourne with her husband, is proof of that. "I'm not wealthy, but I inherited and I have excess wealth. Eastweb makes small grants to what I call 'non-sexy' charities, the ones that find it hard to raise money. We've set up a scholarship for young people with disabilities and we also work with refugees. We tend to make grants to small charities with a strong social justice agenda. It's very rewarding and good fun."

Despite her relatively short tenure at the network, Webster knows exactly what she wants to achieve. "I want to leave here with a strategic plan, secure core funding for the next five years and have members who feel a sense of ownership of their projects."

There are now 63 community foundations in the UK, with the 29 most established foundations holding between them assets worth £92 million. Last year, foundations granted £22 million to local service-providers, projects and voluntary partnerships across the UK. However, the level of grant-making has been hit by the falling stock market. "Donors are continuing to give, but endowments have remained static," she says.

Stock market wobbles aside, Webster believes that the time has come for community foundations. "We live in a time of enormous inter-generational transfer of wealth, but people also have an increased awareness of need in their communities. The beauty of this is that you don't have to be super rich to do something about it."

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