Belfast Telegraph

'More to linking business with charities than money' says Community Foundation NI

‘It’s not always about publicity or profile... it’s about imparting wisdom or lending time to a cause’

Siofra Healy, of the Community Foundation NI, is busy with Northern Ireland's sixth Philanthropy Week. It's a time when her organisation seeks to create awareness of the benefits of charity affiliation for Northern Ireland companies.

The Carlow-born director of philanthropy at the organisation has spent all of her working career in the charity sector here - and during most of that time, she was raising her four children.

She lives, with her husband, two daughters and two sons, in north Belfast, which has been her home longer than her native Carlow.

"When I go home, they tell me I have a northern accent," says Siofra. "But when I'm here, they say the opposite."

Indeed her soft southern brogue is very evident despite her time here.

But she loves Northern Ireland, and the people in it.

And if anyone understands the nature of the NI community, it's a person who has spent the majority of their career "at the coalface" of a charity.

"Charity is down to us as people, and here in Northern Ireland, we have a strong sense of community and place that makes that possible. I know we have our problems in Northern Ireland, but we're very generous with our time and with our money and our advice," she says.

It was 30 years ago when Siofra came to Jordanstown to study tourism management. On a trip to Belgium, after her degree, she met her Belfast-born husband.

Balancing a demanding role in the third sector with a big family is something Siofra seems to operate effortlessly.

"It does help that I have a brilliant husband," she says. "And a great mother-in-law."

When she's not working or bringing her four children to their sporting club, Siofra likes to run. "It's not a massive amount of running, it's three times a week and about 8km a time, but I do love it. Running is great for head space and keeping fit."

Looking back over her career, which has been spent entirely in the third sector, Siofra says: "It's fabulous and I don't know any different. It's just massively rewarding."

Siofra's first job was with Cooperation Ireland, "supporting councils to work together. It was an ACE post - a training scheme for graduates".

Then followed her first role in income generation for the Simon Community. "I was at the real coalface of fundraising then and it was hugely rewarding, but also hard work," she says.

The Prince's Trust was where Siofra first began linking in with businesses.

"That brought a different perspective. It was a national charity. I worked as their fundraising manager in NI and that introduced me to the business community here."

And a further 14 years spent at the NI Hospice was an experience that she describes as "wonderful" and one which saw her undertake the senior role of director of fundraising. And then the challenge and variety of The Community Foundation persuaded her to move on.

One of Siofra's current objectives in her role at the Community Foundation is to pair businesses with the right charity, but, she says, it's about much more than donating cash when a business decides to give.

"It can also be about imparting wisdom or training, or just lending time to a cause and the benefit that can bring to a company is more than rewarding," says Siofra.

"It can boost staff morale and it's about a partnership. There are huge skills that can be passed on to charities, too. What we do is take people on that journey from being socially minded to giving back and when they see that funding out in the community, the reward the donor gets is fantastic."

The Community Foundation NI, which was set up in 1979 under the name the Northern Ireland Voluntary Trust, has awarded more than £100m to charities here, with grants ranging from £200 to £1m.

And £21m has been handed over to charity and community groups here in the past five years.

These include smaller organisations to well-known charities. Siofra says the smaller groups, the lesser-known names, are the causes they pro-actively try to support.

"If you're a big funder, you might not have come across those groups which have unpaid staff and aren't at the level of the big charities, so our role is to broker that relationship and make sure they understand each other," she explains.

Siofra refers to a scheme at Christmas when the fund supported asylum seekers and their families, donating £200 grants. These are among the foundation's lesser-recognised affiliates.

"That fund was for those who really have nothing and used that money for food or their kids' Christmas presents. We work closely with agencies to ensure the money gets to the people who need it."

Among the businesses Siofra works with are national corporations, local enterprises and individuals. The foundation counts Nationwide Building Society (which is currently working to link up with homelessness and housing charities), Ulster Bank and Q Radio, as well as Brockaghboy Wind Farm, outside Garvagh, as some of its business partners.

With the tagline 'Connecting People Who Care with Causes that Matter', the foundation's big focus is to help businesses link in with community projects.

"Businesses are looking for ways to engage in the community and it's not always about publicity or raising their profile. It's actual real, meaningful engagement and where they struggle, I know the Community Foundation can help," continues Siofra.

"I look at Lidl giving back to their communities and they do that at store level and that's a great example of a business working with the community."

One of the foundation's biggest local campaigns was its quick reaction to flooding in Londonderry last summer. It is Siofra's proudest moment since she joined the organisation around three years ago. "When you see something turning around quickly, that's hugely rewarding and gives you a real sense of achievement," adds Siofra.

"The crucial thing for us was to ensure that the worst-affected community groups received support. We wanted groups to know that a responsive organisation, such as the Community Foundation, could provide immediate grants, and in parallel, channel the support of others who wanted to offer help through making donations.

"We are still amazed and deeply grateful for the responses from the community. Over £46,640 was raised and 22 community organisations badly affected by the flooding have been supported with grants ranging in size from £1,000 to £2,500."

This week is the second week of Philanthropy Fortnight, which ends this Friday, and the Community Foundation is at the heart of events that involve a group of organisations, including Belfast Charitable Society, Fermanagh Trust, Arts and Business NI, and Will to Give. They come together to "celebrate, encourage and recognise generosity" in NI, says Siofra.

"Now in its sixth year, there are eight events happening across the province and this week, the Fisher Foundation will award bursaries to young people carrying out voluntary work overseas.

"The Barbour Trust will celebrate their work tackling disadvantage in Belfast and a group of professional advisors will be discussing the value and benefit of addressing philanthropic needs of clients," explains Siofra.

Beyond Friday, the Foundation has a huge amount of work, to continue promoting causes and facilitating fund allocations.

There are some 15,000 charities in NI and it's working to help those groups that don't ordinarily have access to funds or expertise.

Back in its early days, however, it was more focused on giving away peace money, but today and in accordance with its own community research, it donates to "employment, health, arts, older people, women etc - they're the funds we have now," says Siofra.

"We had a change in CEO three years ago and had a strategic review and stopped peace funding and have a real focus now on funding the issues that the community has told us matters to them.

"There are so many charities in Northern Ireland, doing fantastic work, but when you want to make an impact, which one do you go to?" ponders Siofra.

"There is a bit of research involved when an individual, business or family decide to donate - and that's where we come in. We will help you give money away, but we provide help and support."

She cites a recent Q Radio charity cause as one of those support campaigns. "Q Radio has a campaign with five cancer charities and sometimes being that expert sounding board is what is needed to decide on who to give it to.".

She says the current causes in the NI community are ever changing and recently include "emerging issues including mental health, refugees and trafficking".

And businesses recently heard more in-depth details about those causes during an event at the Harbour's Commissioners Office, where £10,000 was raised.

"The motivation for businesses to give is not just about the publicity, it's about being part of that fabric as a society. You can't operate as an organisation in isolation to what's going on around you. And whilst the money is hugely important, it's not all about that either. It could be time, treasure and talent.

"Business people have a huge amount of skills that charities can benefit from and vice versa - that partnership approach is often going on behind the scenes. People are sitting on boards and it's not often talked about.

"Those partnerships flourish and grow, and that can be at any level."

Belfast Telegraph

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