NEWS IN FOCUS: A prizegiving for the high flyers of charitable giving

Tania Mason

The Beacon Prize Awards were dished out in Downing Street last week, where Gordon Brown called them the 'Nobel Prizes of the charity world'. Tania Mason asks if they will inspire a culture of giving in the UK.

There was a tasty bit of gossip doing the rounds at the Beacon Prize Awards ceremony at Number 11, Downing Street last Wednesday. Word had it that the Prime Minister's office had telephoned Beacon offering to host the prizegiving at Number 10, only to be told "thank you very much but we have already said yes to Number 11". Perhaps Chancellor Gordon Brown's smug smile on the night wasn't only brought on by Lord Hutton's verdict.

Of course, Emily Stonor, chief executive of the Beacon Fellowship Charitable Trust, which organised the awards, fiercely denies the hearsay. "That is absolutely and categorically not true. I was lucky enough to be invited to the voluntary sector reception at Number 10 last year and we have very good relations with all government departments."

Whether true or not, the fact that the prizegiving took place in Downing Street at all is a measure of the kudos that the Beacon Prize has earned, even in its first year.

The awards were launched last April, the manifestation of Stonor and co-founder David Charters' desire to give charitable giving as high a profile in the UK as it has in the US, and thereby encourage others to give. "There is a great assumption that runs through British culture that giving is something you keep quiet about, or is best left to other people, or that you can't make much of a difference in the face of some of the problems," says Charters. "Our ambition is to change that."

The trust invited people to nominate those they felt had made an extraordinary contribution to charity. Almost 800 nominations were received; 77 were short-listed. The 14 winners picked up prizes in categories such as leadership, creative giving, start-ups, courage, and young philanthropy. There were also two special prizes and a posthumous award.

The achievements of those who won were humbling. Martin Fisher and Nick Moon won a Creative Giving prize for their social enterprise ApproTec, the catalyst for the launch of 35,000 small businesses in Kenya and Tanzania since 1996. The not-for-profit ApproTec identifies what tools are needed to move small-scale farmers from subsistence agriculture to commercial farming, makes the tools, and sells them to the farmers at a low cost.

All the tools cost between $50 (£27) and $1,000 (£550); the farmers generally recoup this cost within six months and make $1,200 (£660) profit per year.

ApproTec intends to expand throughout Africa and create 100,000 new businesses over the next three years.

London schoolgirl Sarah Francis, 15, won a Young Philanthropist award for raising more than £12,000 for Afghan refugees, by recording songs and staging concerts in Pakistan and other countries.

Carol Wiggins, winner of the overall Beacon Prize, was an unemployed mum of three when she started the Huyton Community Partnership in Knowsley, Merseyside in the mid-1990s. She kick-started the regeneration of one of Britain's most run-down areas, and can claim credit for transforming the lives of more than 1,000 people by giving them the confidence to learn the skills to return to work. Unemployment in the Knowsley area has plummeted from 22 per cent in 1991 to 4 per cent, and the Huyton Community Centre has the largest take-up of Learn Direct in the country.

Opening the ceremony, Gordon Brown said: "You may call it the Oscars of the charity world, but it may be better to call it the Nobel Prizes of the charity world."

But will the existence of the Beacon Prize prompt those not previously tempted to give their time or money away to now do so? Christine Muskett, deputy director at the Lloyds TSB Foundation, who helped whittle down one of the short lists, thinks that the change in attitudes will be more subtle than that.

"It will be more of a slow burn over time, with the result that without being as brash about it as the Americans, the act of giving and being proud of it will become more acceptable."

Martin Fisher says he hopes the Beacon Prize and associated publicity will directly inspire others to make a difference. "If you want people to give, you have to celebrate the act of giving by using examples and role models."

But while the lofty aims of inspiring others and promoting a culture of giving are all very commendable, perhaps the true worth of the Beacon Prize is that it lets extraordinary people know that what they have achieved, often in the face of real adversity, hasn't gone unnoticed. David Constantine, winner of the Beacon Prize for Courage, really brings this home.

Constantine is co-founder of Motivation, a charity that designs and makes affordable wheelchairs for poor people in developing countries. Since its launch in 1991, Motivation has supplied 25,000 wheelchairs to 17 countries.

Constantine, himself confined to a wheelchair after a diving accident in 1982, was over the moon to have won. "It was very nice to hear Gordon Brown describe Beacon as the Nobel Prizes of the charity sector - it helps give you the impetus to carry on doing what you are doing because it isn't always easy. You live from month to month with funding, and at times it's really difficult to keep the funding coming in, and do the work, and hold on to enough people to do it."

For 2004's prize, the categories may be tweaked, but Stonor does not plan to change much else. Last year's nominations will automatically go forward for this year, but she does not expect to roll any over after that. "I think we'll get thousands of nominations next year," she said.

And what of the first year's winners? They're on a collective high and determined to keep up the momentum.

The snowball has begun to roll, and all the evidence suggests that the Beacon Prize will remain something that people at the highest levels of power will scramble to be associated with.

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