Funding story: Northern Rock Foundation

Founded nine years ago, the foundation is starting to focus on a wide range of research and advocacy work.

Why do funders feel the need to start commenting on the sector they fund? After all, isn't it more helpful to use that money directly for grants rather than for commissioning research?

In the case of the Northern Rock Foundation, it's because grant recipients have asked for it. The organisation, which funds activities in north-east England and Cumbria, has just completed an 18-month review. Grant-making continues to be the main focus, but research and policy work are now also on the agenda.

But why would voluntary organisations want someone else to advocate on their behalf? Assistant director Rob Williamson explains some of the background. Northern Rock - which has been going only since 1997, but is a major player in the field - consulted about 1,000 groups and individuals about its direction. The push for more advocacy and development work on behalf of the sector was, he says, quite surprising.

This drive for an independent, unaligned body emerged quickly, Williamson says, on the basis that "you fund all these different things and have all these reports and knowledge of what the sector does - we need you to share good practice, but also to advocate on behalf of the sector and speak up about what it does well".

This is partly because organisations tied into public sector contracts often feel that they're not in a position to campaign and lobby. Northern Rock's independence means it is in a position to speak freely, whether on ways to fund effectively or on models and approaches that have been considered too risky for government funding.

Northern Rock can also take experiences and perspectives from the north-east to the capital.

As a result, the foundation will start building up policy and advocacy work from next year. Some of this will focus on problems that are particularly acute in the area, such as unemployment and poor health; other work will focus on issues that are spread pretty evenly across the UK, such as domestic abuse.

Williamson insists it won't become the sole focus of the foundation's work. "Anything we commission will always be embedded in our work with those we fund," he says. "We won't just automatically reach for a grant-making solution; we will use all the tools in our kit."

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