The fourth Annual Conference of the Funders Forum for Northern Ireland, and its first hybrid Conference due to Covid-19 restrictions, provided an opportunity to welcome me as incoming Chair, with sincere gratitude being expressed to outgoing Chair, Paula Reynolds.
The Conference focused on two key issues, with the morning session considering the stability, certainty and sustainability of the community and voluntary sector as we emerge from the pandemic and afternoon discussion focusing on climate change.
Invited panellists drew on their own experiences of being immersed in the voluntary sector and of working in or with community groups in the west of Northern Ireland. Kate Clifford, Lauri McCusker and Gerard Deane are influential and well-known leaders and collaboratively working on ‘Community Leadership In The West’, a programme aimed at encouraging new leaders, recognising that there is little succession planning in the sector for the next generation.
Group discussions encouraged delegates to consider key issues facing the sector, how funders can invest in future leadership and how members of the Funders Forum for Northern Ireland can both inform and influence Government and other statutory partners.
Discussions were lively and a common thread running throughout was the need to support sector infrastructure, organisational stability through multi-year, flexible, core funding; and grassroots community development expertise, creating an environment in which future leaders can emerge and thrive. Panellists flagged the detrimental impact of the pandemic on areas such as volunteering and the lack of uptake in leadership roles, critical to community development. The ‘Community Leadership in the West’ programme has demonstrated that there is huge untapped leadership potential within communities and a need for purposeful encouragement and engagement at grassroots level, to sustain the sector and make it fit for the future.
Whilst discussion focused on need at a community level, panellists also reminded us that a central tenet for community development in Northern Ireland is that we are stronger together. It remains important to work towards inclusion and peace-building, supporting leadership which enables communities to work cohesively, flourish and look to the future. As funders, we can play a critical role in identifying and supporting work which has potential to transform the sector, working with communities, government and each other. Importantly, we were reminded to take more risks as funders. Transformation requires different ways of working, being open and responsive to challenge; and moving away from the more well-worn and traditional funding pathways.
Addressing climate change
In the afternoon, panellists were invited to address the assembled delegates on the climate crisis and ways in which funders can lead, inspire and support communities to take positive action on this critical issue. I hosted this session with three speakers, each with a a real passion and commitment to addressing climate change.
Sean Kelly of Northern Ireland Environment Link outlined the policy environment in which we are operating and reminded us that Northern Ireland does not have legislation as yet for climate change. Isobel Loughran, Chief Executive of Footprints Women’s Resource Centre, based in the heart of a large housing estate, spoke about the tangible ways in which grassroots communities can take action. For Footprints, their priority was initially to feed mums and their children, yet, almost accidentally, they started to address climate change and the environment when establishing their own community garden and thriving social supermarket. The third panellist, Cormac Matthews, is a member of the UK-wide youth and environmental advocacy programme ‘Our Bright Future’ and spoke of the mental health implications for young people and right for future generations to exist “in an ecosystem that is sustainable and we can all live in”.
The group discussion after this panel session highlighted that for most delegates, climate change has yet to be fully understood and addressed, through our grant-making, operations and investments. Delegates acknowledged that whilst there is a long way to go, the need to amplify this issue at government level and make sustainability a priority for themselves and for those they are funding, requires immediate consideration and action.
If we continue to share insights, best practice examples and collaborate on this critical issue, I am hopeful that we will be able to maintain momentum and make some headway, individually and as a collective.