NEWS IN FOCUS: How much equality really exists in the third sector?

MATHEW LITTLE

Black and minority ethnic groups are fighting back against what they see as an unfair funding system.

Black and minority ethnic (BME) voluntary and community organisations have little contact with the mainstream white-led sector, suffer from an unequal distribution of resources and are held back by racist attitudes and unresponsive funders.

This is the sobering message from Bassac, the community group umbrella body which, together with the Black Training and Enterprise Group, is to launch a £130,000 pilot project to dismantle the "carefully guarded barriers" between BME and mainstream groups.

Despite warm words, good intentions and a commitment to "diversity" on the part of the sector and the Government, the evidence suggests that Bassac is right. Last year, a report from the Local Government Information Unit found that just 1.3 per cent of successful initiatives funded by the £5.5 million Single Regeneration Budget, which was launched to help deprived areas of Britain, were led by BME groups.

The authors argued that the bidding process was skewed towards larger established organisations and that where BME groups were involved in partnerships led by other agencies, they tended to be the weakest and least influential partners.

The Council for Ethnic Minority Voluntary Organisations (CEMVO), which represents the UK's 9,500 BME voluntary and community organisations is conducting its own research into grant-giving to BME groups by the 20 largest trusts and foundations, to be published in January.

Initial results indicate that just 2 per cent of trust funding goes to BME groups. "It presents a disturbing picture," says CEMVO's chief executive Krishna Sarda.

"BME groups do not appear to be getting their fair share of funding.

But the reasons are complex and you can't put it all at the door of simple racism." He also believes that many trusts and foundations are very keen to reform their grant-making to ensure that BME bidders are more successful.

There are several reasons why at the moment they often aren't, according to Sarda. One problem is that funders, without intimate knowledge of BME communities, may not fully understand the project ideas that emanate from BME groups and how they relate to the funders' aims.

Many BME groups are also changing rapidly and working on projects that may appear some distance from their original objectives. In these circumstances, Sarda asserts, it is the responsibility of BME management boards to explain how new projects relate to old established aims.

Funders themselves do not see BME organisations as able to deliver services tied to specific outcomes, and pigeonhole them as campaigning social justice organisations. "This is an unfair perception because there are very strong, very vibrant BME groups delivering excellent services at low cost," says Sarda.

Funders are also wary about giving grants to BME organisations unless they are sure they have the financial systems in place to handle the money. "Some funders have had their fingers burnt," says Sarda. "But this just means there needs to be capacity building in BME groups to give funders confidence that they can handle large sums."

Taskin Saleem, chief executive of Subco, a charity in east London which provides day care and counselling to Asian elders, believes BME organisations must still challenge "myths and stereotypes".

"Funding has always been a problem since we can get funding for specific services such as day care but not for new innovative projects," she says.

"Because we are black we are seen as the poor relation and I believe this is because of institutional racism."

Saleem says that as a BME organisation, Subco is subject to more stringent regulation and monitoring than mainstream groups. Despite being run by professional, qualified managers and boasting an annual turnover of £250,000, the charity is continually suspected of being a "family organisation" with relatives on the payroll. "There have been some cases of this in the BME sector but everyone gets tarred with the same brush," says Saleem.

"Is everybody else being asked the same questions?"

Saleem also asserts that funders, obsessed with quantifiable "outputs", do not understand the complexity of the work undertaken by BME groups.

"They just assume that we provide services to Asians, but that can mean dealing with eight or nine different languages," she says.

She also questions whether funders, despite several designated BME funding pots set up by major trusts, are really becoming more amenable to black groups. "I don't think it's getting better," she says. "We have to get accreditation such as the Investors in People charter mark to show that we are a capable organisation. We have to work harder and harder to break into the market."

Saleem believes that funders need to develop a greater understanding of BME groups. "Myths and stereotypes need to be challenged. We don't want to lower standards but there needs to be flexibility from funders," she says.

CEMVO is trying to bring about such a meeting of minds through a series of "funding surgeries" in London, where 50 per cent of the UK's BME groups are based.

The events bring together major charitable trusts such as Esmee Fairburn and the City Parochial Foundation with black community groups. The aim is that the groups can talk to funders before they put a bid on paper and that the funders begin to appreciate the particular complexities of BME groups.

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