Charity Client Focus: Michelle Cooper, Chief Executive at County Durham Community Foundation
Founded in 1995, the County Durham Community Foundation is an independent grant-making foundation that acts as a critical conduit for donors who are looking to give to local charity and community groups across County Durham and Darlington.
We recently spoke to Michelle Cooper, who joined the Foundation as Chief Executive last year, following a long career in business development and investment management. We discussed her motivations behind moving into the not-for-profit sector from a corporate world, the benefits of embedding a culture of giving into a business, and her future vision for the Foundation.
Could you tell us a little bit about your corporate background?
I spent many years at Northstar Ventures as an Investment Director, having joined them in 2004, and the role initially revolved around early stage technology investment. I started off by working on the ‘proof of concept’ fund, which was investing small amounts of funding into very early stage ideas.
I then progressed to working on larger scale deals. The role entailed meeting with people, teasing out their ideas, and helping to develop their approach, before finally making the investment and undertaking portfolio management.
What was your first experience of working within the social sector?
My first foray into the social sector came from a partnership with the Northern Rock Foundation. Northstar Ventures collaborated with them on a fund known as the Fresh Ideas programme, and it was based around working with charitable groups. The fund allowed charities to receive grants from Northern Rock Foundation to develop ideas for income streams and services that could help their long-term sustainability, and the groups received mentoring support from myself at Northstar.
Was there much of a culture change between the corporate world and the social sector?
I think the most striking thing for me was that in the social sector, understandably the heart often rules the head. I noticed a lot of charities were continuing loss-making activities for this reason, things which you are discouraged from doing in the business world. There was also a shift in language used; you weren’t allowed to use the word ‘profit,’ it had to be ‘surplus.’
What were your motivations behind taking on the role of Chief Executive at the County Durham Community Foundation?
A lot of things had lined up for me personally. It felt like the right time of life, as I’d been able to see the amazing difference that relatively small amounts of money can make in the not-for-profit sector. I’d worked in a commercial environment for 15 years, so it was a new challenge in a space that was really rewarding. I was also aware that opportunities don’t often come up like this in the North East, so it felt like a “once-in-a-lifetime” chance.
On top of this, there was a lot of uncertainty in the region at the time. No-one knew when the next set of European funding was going to come through, which was frustrating and highlighted to me that I didn’t want to just sit around and wait. When the opportunity at the Foundation came along, I was a bit apprehensive about applying because I didn’t think I could do it. After some encouragement from people who had worked with me across the charity sector, it was then I decided to go for it.
Many people may not know what a ‘grant-making foundation’ actually does. Can you talk me through the work that the Foundation carries out?
We simply enable donors to connect their gifts with local community groups, who are delivering services where they are most needed.
I think one of the difficulties community foundations have is properly defining ourselves; we don’t have one distinct charitable purpose, such as a cancer charity. We act as a critical conduit between donors – including businesses, individuals, or charitable trusts – and local charitable groups. This helps to support groups throughout County Durham and Darlington, who can be operating in anything from working with young people and the elderly, to working with substance abuse groups.
The average grant that we award is £4,500, and seeing how these groups multiply every pound that you give them with their time, their passion, and their creativity, is just phenomenal. The progression you see in the people that the charities use the funding to help is very inspirational. For us to be able to work with them to pass on donations is incredibly humbling.
The Foundation works with a wide variety of businesses. What do you think has motivated them to get involved with giving?
First and foremost, it’s because it matters to them what is happening in their local community. They work with us because they know the money given will be maximised and passed onto a local group, dealing with local issues. A lot of the businesses we work with are keen to factor charity into their daily business planning.
A great example of this is the Darlington Building Society. They operate a profit-sharing scheme, where they retain 5% of their net profits after tax specifically for philanthropic giving. The beauty for them is that, as a building society, they effectively work in partnership with their members. They have a proven track record of supporting the communities and supporting projects their members are passionate about, which is fantastic. By working with us, they’re able to reach local groups that they wouldn’t be able to in-house. They absolutely understand how important embedding the culture of giving into a business is.
What benefits do your donors get by conducting charitable giving through the Foundation?
I think that there is an increasing passion for donors being able to see where their money is going locally, and the effect it is having. If you want to give locally, there really is no better organisation than a community foundation to know what groups are operating in the area that need support at any given time.
Donors who engage with us are also able to fully utilise the knowledge of the Foundation. It is a system of structured giving, and we do all the leg work. We know who can deliver, and we make sure that the due diligence and good governance is in place. We work with people like the Banks Group, who actively engage in supporting community groups, to manage their funds and structure their giving. This means we can make it targeted, relevant, and appropriate, to really maximise the effect a donation can have.
What is your vision for the future of the County Durham Community Foundation?
People matter to us, and charitable objectives matter to us, so we would love to be known as the go-to and trusted partner for anyone who wishes to make a donation to benefit the communities of County Durham and Darlington. We effectively become the fundraising arm for these community groups, so we care about ensuring that the money goes to the charity in the most efficient and smartest way, to make sure the needs of the group are being met.
We’re a community foundation, but we’re also a business. My background in the corporate world means that we can do this well, and we can do it in an effective way, like any good business.
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