There’s no time like the present: addressing need in the UK funding sector

February 22, 2022

By Mary Rose Gunn

There’s a big problem in the small charity sector. Over the past year, The Fore has been listening to its grantees and a clear theme emerged: small organisations across the sector struggled to access funding in 2021. Emergency funding kept the small charity sector afloat during the first wave of the pandemic but it has dried up, leaving these organisations in a precarious position as they deal with COVID’s ongoing impact. One grantee spoke of the new, even more competitive funding landscape as a stark contrast to the flexible grant making practices seen in 2020. Despite many of the grant-making sector’s umbrella bodies – ACF and London Funders amongst them – hailing significant change in the sector, according to the small charities on the ground, it seems that many funders have returned to business as usual with complicated criteria and application processes and a preference for charities they know already. 

Thankfully, some funders are different and continue to champion funding small charities with urgency. John Bothamley has long understood the need to give more now.  Twenty-five years ago when John founded the Four Acre Trust he made a very unusual decision to spend all the funds he had and not build an endowment. “Spending down” or “spending-out”, the practice of giving away funds within a time limited period, is now fashionable with celebrated examples including the Diana, Princess of Wales Memorial Fund and the Bill Gates Foundation, but in 1996 this was radical.  But the chances are you’ve never heard of John or Four Acre Trust, and he prefers to keep it that way.  This is a shame because since setting up Four Acre in 1996, John has given away the extraordinary sum of £35 million to help children and young people.

In fact, John is reluctant to put his own or even Four Acre’s name to the projects he has supported, and it’s clear that his priority is getting money to where it’s needed – his philanthropy is no vanity project.  He has a huge sense of what social good means and the importance of supporting charities now.

John made the decision to spend down with his trustees and is now giving away money to intermediaries to ensure his donations are being spent well, which is high on his agenda. Four Acre Trust was one of The Fore’s earliest supporters, and John has backed our mission to get funding to the organisations which need it most from the beginning.

Four Acre Trust’s core mission is to give children and young people a better start in life, and its current programmes include support for into-work schemes and early intervention projects. John is an advocate for the role of communication skills in social mobility and launched Talk the Talk, which teaches soft skills to school leavers. The programme has been so successful that it has now been established as its own charitable organisation.

Perhaps the sector can learn from John’s attitude to philanthropy. There’s no disputing that he really does put his money where his mouth is; he has a steely determination to make tangible change, and to make it now. In a sector where we hear an awful lot of talking and not so much doing, it’s refreshing to see a philanthropist translating his intentions into action.

Mary Rose Gunn is Founder and Chief Executive of The Fore, the UK’s first venture philanthropy fund dedicated to supporting visionary grassroots social entrepreneurs.  To date, The Fore has distributed £6.5m in funding and 8000 hours of skills support to over 400 dynamic small charities and social enterprises challenging inequality.