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Thoughts on Philanthropy in Northern Ireland

Matthew Bowcock | The Hazelhurst Trust | 23 June 2016

During the TPW organised Peace and Reconciliation journey to Northern Ireland a small group of philanthropists were fortunate enough to meet peace and community activists, academics, the Deputy Chief Minister, dissidents, police officers, school heads and journalists. We were welcomed with open and honest discussion, for which we are all extremely grateful.

It struck me that a vacuum in private philanthropic funding is looming. It is clear that some of the bravest, most creative and effective initiatives that have contributed to peace in Northern Ireland have been funded not by government but with philanthropic money, though most has come from by a small number of large foundations. Sadly, funding from a number of these, such as Atlantic Philanthropy, will end in the next three years. This could starve civil society of the oxygen that it needs to thrive. Government funding is unlikely to be able to step into this void and we heard the view expressed repeatedly that government funding is controlled from Stormont down to community level through the two-party political structure that governs as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. The space for bottom up community initiatives that can challenge and “speak truth to power” is limited and may soon disappear.

A dependence on government funding and a small number of major foundations may also have supressed the skills of the voluntary sector in fundraising. Community groups seem at a loss to identify where alternative funding could come from and how they might establish themselves as charities and apply for grants. At the same time, despite the deeply embedded social issues in Northern Ireland, few of major UK wide foundations appear to be heavily engaged. 

A thriving, independently funded civil society that can take risks, engage with communities and break down barriers is essential for any developed society, all the more so when emerging from thirty years of strife, but the issue, though acknowledged, seems to be receiving little attention. The fuel for civil society is private giving, which can nurture and test initiatives until the best are passed on to government agencies for funding at scale, based on evidence. These are the projects which can “make the future look better than the present, so that people don’t want to live in the past.”

The challenge, of course, is that there are relatively limited numbers of wealthy, non-sectarian donors in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, there is a diaspora of Northern Irish in the UK, Ireland, the US, Australia and other countries, some of which have achieved success and accumulated wealth, and there is an emerging group of philanthropists in Ireland. It may be possible to engage more of these to support projects, community initiatives and charities in Northern Ireland.

How could this philanthropic funding vacuum be filled? A sustained campaign is needed in the years left before funding from foundations such as Atlantic Philanthropy ends. This could take the form of:

• A programme to educate UK and US foundations about the social and sectarian situation in Northern Ireland, the threats to peace that the lack of opportunity fosters and the ways in which their grant making could achieve major social impact;
• A programme to train Northern Irish civil society organisations in fundraising and charity governance;
• Investment in the Community Foundation for Northern Ireland as it transitions from social activism to philanthropy development;
• Funding from UK or US foundations, Big Lottery or government to support these initiatives so that independent additional independent funding streams develop before the philanthropic funding deficit emerges.

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Matthew Bowcock is a board member of The Philanthropy Workshop.

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