Winter Talk with The Fore

posted 12 Jan 2021 5 mins

For our first virtual event of 2021, we were delighted to welcome as our guest speaker Mary Rose Gunn, founder and Chief Executive of The Fore. 

A seed funder for the charity sector, The Fore was launched with the support of the Golden Bottle Trust in 2017 and enjoys close links with the bank (its parent organisation, the Bulldog Trust, was founded by the late Richard ‘Tigger’ Hoare).

In conversation with Alexander Hoare, Mary Rose focused on the impact of The Fore’s work with small charities and grass-roots social enterprises. While ‘household name’ charities and NGOs attract high levels of public support, donations to small charities can be powerfully catalytic, enabling significant, sometimes systemic, social change.

‘Small charities bring so much benefit in terms of their connections with, and knowledge of, local communities,’ she explained. ‘They understand the landscape and know the needs of people on the ground. And they are powerful drivers of innovation. Just as in the commercial sector innovation rarely comes from the huge players, innovation in the charity sector comes from the smaller start-ups. As the last year has shown us, there will always be new problems, problems we never previously imagined, so we have to make sure we are out there supporting the people who are coming up with new solutions.’

The impact of local, agile organisations such as South London Cares (part of a larger ‘charity franchise’ The Fore helped grow) is, says, Mary Rose, ‘genuinely life-changing’:

‘South London Cares has 2,500 younger people on its books and 1,300 older adults; it brings those two groups together at dance events, cinema nights and other social occasions and the benefits, for old and young, are huge. When COVID-19 struck, we helped them move everything online: they were doing sofa yoga and singing together via Zoom, but most importantly, by maintaining that social contact, they were able to connect isolated elderly people with crucial services. They were aware if somebody needed help from a healthcare professional, or help with debt advice, and they were making sure people received food parcels if they needed them. In short, they were providing the kind of frontline support that was so desperately needed during the first lockdown and is needed again now.’

To date, The Fore has supported 370 organisations, 225 of which were taken on during the first national lockdown in March 2020.

‘We went out and raised a lot of money – the Golden Bottle Trust was very supportive – and we donated just over a million pounds in individual grants up to a maximum of £5000. When we went back to the charities in September and asked how they were getting on, 40% of the organisations we gave money to told us they wouldn’t have survived without that £5000. We found that quite mind-blowing, because five grand is not a huge amount of money, but there were three reasons it made such a difference. First, we made our first grants 15 days after lockdown, which was very fast in comparison to a lot of other funding. Also, the grants were completely unrestricted, so the charities could spend the money where it was most needed. Finally, we selected organisations we felt would be important in the ‘rebuild’ phase of the pandemic and not just in the immediate crisis. For example, we supported Action Tutoring, a charity that provides learning support to disadvantaged children, because we knew an organisation like that was never going to get money from the government’s emergency funding.’

As well as providing venture capital for small charities, The Fore provides crucial support with skills training, fundraising and impact assessment:

‘Philanthropists generally support organisations they already know, or where they have been introduced by friends or colleagues,’ Mary Rose points out. ‘That’s brilliant when it works. But if you are a small community group in an area where unemployment is rife, you probably don’t know many people who managed to get jobs as lawyers or accountants or bankers, which means you’re unlikely to be able to access the sort of support that might help you build your organisation. You can have a completely brilliant solution that is changing people’s lives, but you’re going to find it very difficult to connect into networks and into funding. The Fore is all about levelling the playing field, so that it doesn’t matter what kind of fundraising experience you do or don’t have. You can come to us and our trained assessors will take you through a very gentle, but quite rigorous strategic review. Then, if you’re ‘spotted’, we’ll connect you with whatever kind of support you need.’

Slicing through tangles of red tape to deliver help effectively and strategically has never been more important and our virtual audience was warm in its appreciation of The Fore’s ground-breaking approach to giving: ‘We are very keen to see more donors support small charities,’ said Mary Rose. ‘It’s incredibly rewarding for the donors, because your money can have so much more impact. Our results show that if you give the right organisations support, and put your trust in them, they will achieve a huge amount. They just need help to unlock their own potential.’