Interview: Caroline Diehl

The chief executive of the Media Trust tells John Plummer its Big Lottery Fund award is good news for small charities

Caroline Diehl
Caroline Diehl

The Media Trust found itself in a difficult financial position towards the end of last year.

A three-year Office for Civil Society grant worth £400,000 a year, which funded three projects, and a Communities and Local Government department award of £450,000 a year over two years were both due to expire at the end of March this year.

Like many charities, the trust was feeling the effects of the end of the last government spending period and services were under threat.

"A year ago, I was very nervous," says Caroline Diehl, chief executive of the trust, which aims to improve charities' communication skills with the help of the media industry.

When the new financial year began, the two Whitehall departments continued to provide funding, albeit at significantly reduced levels. But in May, the trust received a major boost when the Big Lottery Fund awarded it £1.89m over three years.

The trust did not apply for the grant through one of the BLF's open programmes. Instead, the BLF solicited the bid, a process that led to complaints from some voluntary bodies that it lacked transparency and was decided by 'who you know'.

Diehl points out that the BLF has solicited bids from other charities and the controversy surrounding the practice led to a debate that prompted the funder to produce a guide outlining the solicitation process.

For the trust, whose total income in 2009/10 was £5.4m, the award was invaluable. It enabled the organisation to reopen its community newswire service, which helps charities get stories in the press, five months after it had closed. Its future is now secure for three years.

The BLF award also enabled the trust to keep the Community Channel on air. The channel, which covers issues affecting communities and charities, is watched by five million people a year.

Lottery funding is also helping the trust establish an online academy of citizen journalism, designed to connect and train the increasing number of citizen journalists who provide free news through blogs, websites and newsletters.

The growth in citizen journalism has not been welcomed by some journalists, who regard it as a cheap and less professional alternative to paid journalism.

But Diehl says the decline in local newspapers is a major problem for charities because it threatens one of their main sources of publicity.

Citizen journalists, she says, are filling the niche and the training the trust provides should ensure they operate to higher standards.

The trust has about 2,000 media professionals offering free services to voluntary organisations in areas such as web design, PR and journalism skills. Diehl says increasing this number will be one of the trust's main challenges over the next year.

Which media skills are charities most in need of developing? "Charities, particularly smaller ones, need to develop digital media strategies and produce fantastic content," she says.

With its funding more secure than it was a year ago, Diehl hopes the trust will be able to help more of them do so.

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