Building bridges

The City Bridge Trust marked its 20th year by increasing its annual giving to £20 million from around £15 million, meaning an extra £5 million a year benefitting charitable activities around greater London.

The trust is the grant-making arm of the Bridge House Estates, whose sole trustee is the City of London Corporation. Bridge House Estates owns and maintains the five bridges crossing the Thames into the City. CBT makes use of surplus income not required to maintain the five bridges to the benefit of the whole of London.

The Bridge House Estates has its roots in truly ancient times, dating back to the 12th century when funds needed to be raised for the construction of London Bridge.

City Bridge Trust marked its 20th anniversary in early March, representing two decades of facilitating charitable activity around the capital.

City Bridge Trust is uniquely placed to enable charitable activity across London, and not only through the grants it provides. Through its trustee the City of London Corporation the trust has connections into statutory bodies across the capital, and by nature of its location its networks within the finance world are similarly strong.

The trust has further broadened its support through the £1 million Stepping Stones Fund, aimed at capacity-building and providing strategic support and access to intermediaries for organisations looking at social investment.

How does the trust set its grant making strategy?

We run on a five year cycle. Every five years we go out to London and have a big conversation/diagnostic which involves primary research, secondary research, focus groups, speaking to all of the charities that we support and different stakeholders. We’re halfway through one of those cycles.

When is the strategy up for review?

We’re firing the starting gun on the next review now, which I know is over two years out from when we actually implement, but we need to initiate it early to do it properly and ensure the quality of the collaborative conversations we want to have. We hope the review will be helpful in itself to a lot of people. The diagnostic, in terms of what London needs, is relevant to a lot of people and a lot of people are already doing good things on that. The London Fairness Commission is one of the inputs, along with data from City Hall. We look at the information available through the umbrella group London Funders, which we think is very important in bringing together the statutory funders and the trust and foundation funders including Big Lottery.

You announced last year that the trust is branching out into social investment via the Stepping Stones Fund, what role does this form of finance play in the overall strategy?

We don’t think social investment is the answer to everything, and some of the rhetoric around social investment has been hyperbolic, but it’s another strand of funding that for some people may support a more diverse funding base. So we set up the Stepping Stones Fund to provide charities who want to think about social investment with some consultancy time and expertise to think about it in a considered way. We’ve been doing it in partnership with UBS, and they have committed £300,000 to contribute to a second round of that. Again it’s part of this bigger piece of reflecting diminishing traditional funding through government or local authority grants. Trying to increase the pot, thinking laterally about where that money could come from.

Has the 20th anniversary had an impact on how the trust reflects on its activities?

Two things happened around the 20th anniversary specifically. First, we were able to use it as a catalyst to get more money out of the underlying endowment because of the successful management of the assets by the teams of surveyors and our trustee the Corporation of London. That will continue for the rest of this Investing in Londoners grant cycle. There’ll be more money going to those same criteria over this remaining period.
The other thing attached to the anniversary were a couple of particular themes which aren’t pieces of work that people can apply against, it’s more us reflecting on some of the learning from our reactive grants to see if we can work with some charities to progress a couple of areas. One of those is around employment and people who are disabled – particularly young people – and we’re just at the early stages of framing how we’re going to work with that. We’re going to be speaking to various people. The other theme is around, and there’s some potential overlap here, employability and attitudes around mental health. Practical ways where people who’ve suffered mental health problems can be supported into employment, also supporting employers to deal better with potential employees. There are people doing really good things in both areas at the moment. That’s why we happened upon them, because we’ve got some knowledge from people we already fund.

What about support for organisations themselves? The impact of reduced Government and local authority funding has been a high profile theme lately, what approach does City Bridge Trust take to offering support in this area?

We have a strand called ‘Supporting the Voluntary Sector’ which undercuts or cross cuts all of the other funding strands. We think it’s hugely important and particularly important at the moment within the context of 40 per cent cuts to London borough budgets, the increased demand on charities, statutory services receding, and Central Government funding being dramatically reduced. That ‘Supporting the Voluntary Sector’ strand has been used for things like trying to strengthen financial procedures in a charity, or the governance structures, or enabling a charity to get better at diversifying its funding base or evaluating its impact. We’re also working quite hard with other funders, again through London Funders, to think about how London charities can be better supported when there’s less money available.

Aside from other funders, how does City Bridge Trust work with other organisations?

An important piece of work around our 20th anniversary is trying to encourage more philanthropy. At a time when you’ve got this retrenchment of state funding and London borough cuts, the reality is that there needs to be more given in terms of individual philanthropy and also corporate philanthropy. Giving time, money, talent – skills based volunteering. Giving money in the sense that you don’t have to be a multi-millionaire, it can be the price of a cappuccino, but getting more money into the pot in a considered way. Not just throwing money at something, actually trying to do it as intelligently as possible. We occupy a space and our trustee occupies a space between sectors so the community and voluntary network is quite key. Our sole corporate trustee is the City of London Corporation, which has a local authority function for the square mile, but by dint of its politicians being apolitical it’s often asked to convene meetings across all the boroughs in London. So there’s quite a deep reach into statutory networks. There’s also a lot of reach into the financial networks and SME networks etcetera.

Does that extend to supporting the sustainability of particular organisations?

We remain deeply committed to funding full cost recovery and funding core costs is absolutely possible for us. There’s none of that project-based funding only without full cost recovery. It’s really important for funders to be aware of the true cost of a project. There’s also a humility which is needed from funders, in that you can’t pretend to know all of what’s needed across London and who’s doing what. It’s a massive spread.
There’s a role for funders to support and consider buying capacity for directors and chief executives to think about what the future looks like. For example, at the moment we’re thinking about funding some time for the senior team for an organisation to really reflect on models for the future and some consultancy time to give them some expertise on financial modelling and impact so they can consider in a measured way whether they should scale up, get some more funding in, merge back office functions, fall on their swords and gift their best projects to another organisation. But do that in a way that isn’t just a fire sale, or done on the hoof. Funders can buy time for leaders to help them have the space to do the analysis and make the decisions with their boards that they need to make.

How would a grant maker determine whether there is a need for that, or whether meeting it should be a funding priority?

At the heart of the funder/grantee relationship is the people contact. Apart from some of our very smallest grants every application - after it’s through the first filter - has a grants manager go out to visit that organisation. You shouldn’t underplay the quality and importance of that human interaction - getting away from the idea of ‘them and us’, the funder and the grantee. It’s a symbiotic relationship which can be mutually beneficial. This current environment necessitates that we have even more of that.

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