Fabian French, Chief Executive, UK Community Foundations
Fabian French, a former corporate finance banker with over 20 years’ experience in the City, was appointed as Chief Executive of UK Community Foundations (UKCF) earlier this year, following five years at Marie Curie. Jack Stewart spoke with Fabian about his move from the City to the charity sector and the role of community foundations today.
One of the first things former City banker Fabian French did when he took over as head of fundraising at Marie Curie was interrogate the figures. His findings were shocking.
“I undertook an audit of fundraising activities and analysed the return on investment for each one. I don’t think it had ever been done and it was striking to find a number of fundraising activities were costing the charity money.
“You could argue that if they were fantastic at raising awareness then it wouldn’t matter – but they weren’t. One of my simple fixes was to replace these with activities that had a return of investment greater than one.”
After five years at the helm of Marie Curie’s fundraising and retail arm French began looking for a new challenge; it was then that he found UK Community Foundations (UKCF).
“Community foundations are probably the best kept secret in the third sector in the UK - and that is something that I have been brought in to address.”
UKCF is the umbrella body for 48 local community foundations who work with individuals, families or companies to design grant-making strategies that tackle particular issues in a certain geographical area and French believes community foundations are more important than they have ever been.
Collectively they give around £65m a year in grants across the nation which would make them the fourth largest grant giving organisation in the UK.
“Two generations ago you had extended families to help out within communities. One generation ago you had local authorities helping those in need. This generation it will be community foundations that can make a difference to an individual’s successes or failures, their happiness or unhappiness. The need for community foundations has never been greater.
“The reason they aren’t well known is because they are local and consciously low profile. The people who know about community foundations are the people who need to know – volunteers and beneficiaries. It is our job to inform the more influential and wealthier people.”
“We do not intend to be a national brand but we want to be known among the right people. We are going to be louder and more emphatic on community issues. We want to highlight issues faced by communities and show how they can be met.
“There is poverty within a few miles of any postcode in this country. Even some of the wealthiest counties have pockets of deprivation, and as people begin to realise this it will make them more conscious about supporting their communities.”
French notes that people often pick a cause they want to support and select a large international charity, but if they look closer to home they will find community foundations tackling similar issues on their own doorstep.
“I believe in 10 years we will see the whole community foundation movement much better know and applauded. The age old adage is that charity starts at home and what is just outside your home – your community.”
Escape your air-conditioned bubble
With his experience of both the City and the charity sector French believes it is incredibly important and valuable for City workers, especially young professionals, to get involved with charities, either as volunteers or trustees.
“When you work in the City you live in a kind of air-conditioned bubble. You spend your time in high rise offices. You travel in air-conditioned cars, to first-class airport lounges and fly to a meeting in another air-conditioned high rise office. You really have no sense of what is going on in the real world.
“By getting involved in the charity sector you suddenly realise what else is going on in the world. It took me out of my privileged cocoon and made me a better-rounded person. I would urge young people to do it unconditionally – young people look at things differently and are willing to ask the difficult questions.”
Volunteers play a vital role in the success of community foundations. In 2014-15 UK community foundations had 1,777 volunteers, not including trustees (all of whom are voluntary). Community foundations have an average of 10 members of staff, with some as low as 2, but had an average of 37 volunteers each, over the course of the year.
Volunteering isn’t just for the benefit of the charity either as French said: “You make yourself more valuable to your employer as well as more valuable to the community at large. I know many people who have got a huge amount out of mentoring or teaching students in the East End of London and they have found it very rewarding and benefited in terms of their own career.”
Fixing the City’s reputation
When asked about the City’s reputation for giving French concedes that there is still some way to go: “The City has a lousy reputation since the last crash and since the LIBOR rigging and the other horrific things that the banks have allegedly engaged in. So its reputation needs rehabilitation. I have seen time and time again how an organisation’s reputation can be rehabilitated by good causes they get involved with.
“My view is that the entire pot of City fines should be ring-fenced for charitable spending. So they are not just being fined but are being forced to make a difference. I think that would be hugely beneficial as far as the City’s reputation.”
French concedes that the government would have to help but: “considering financial services are the UK’s biggest export it must be in their interest to improve their profile, both in this country and more broadly.”
French believes that there is already a change happening in the City as young professionals are more concerned about the social aspects of companies they work for and it is important to capitalise on this. (Indeed our own More to Give Report offers evidence of this).
“They are asking questions about CSR, from the heart, not just because it is a question you ask in an interview. They really care about, for example, the environmental footprint of an organisation, or if they get volunteering days. They are less concerned than my generation of City entrants who just cared about the financial terms and conditions.
“My view is that young professionals who are starting out in life will be spending money on rent, mortgages and buying their first and second cars, but this latent interest in matters philanthropic will really become visible when they start earning more money than they need to maintain their lifestyle.
“What I have noticed is that people often start by volunteering and that there is a journey of engagement. The data shows that most donors to charities are middle-aged people who have established themselves in life and no longer worry about the cost of children and mortgages. The more people you engage at an early stage the great the number of people will give when they get out of the big expense tunnel.”