What’s next for a new trust?

DSC's Researcher, and co-author of The Guide to New Trusts, Kallista Jayasuriya, chatted with Graeme Marsh, Head of the McCarthy Stone Foundation.

To celebrate the publication of the 13th edition of DSC’s The Guide to New Trusts, we thought it would be interesting to get in touch with an established ‘New Trust’ that featured in the guide a few editions ago.  

In this article, we interview Graeme Marsh, Head of the McCarthy Stone Foundation (Charity Commission no. 1191504). Established in 2020, the charity is the corporate foundation of McCarthy & Stone, the UK’s largest developer and manager of retirement communities. You may have come across this foundation for the first time in our 10th edition of New Trusts, and more recently in the latest edition of DSC’s best-selling Directory of Grant-Making Trusts  

What is your foundation’s mission, and which causes and grantees do you serve?  

The McCarthy Stone Foundation gives grants to small grassroots causes and organisations with an income under £250,000 to reduce isolation and loneliness in people over 65 and help them feel connected and valued within society. We have also launched our own programme of monthly lunch socials for people over 65 to connect with one another. We aim to grow this in the coming months and years.  

How has your foundation developed as a new grant-maker? 

I feel it is important when starting out in grant making to have an emergent approach so that over time you can tweak aspects of your programme where needed. For example, we found our initial focus was too broad, resulting in too many applications and not enough clarity around how we selected recipients. We also started to get deeper into self-reflection. As we learnt more, we changed our assessment processes and narrowed down what we looked to fund. This gives more clarity to the many charities looking to apply for funding, helped our trustees and other volunteers involved in the assessment of applications, and longer term will enable us to know if what we are doing is working.  

Another example is that we investigated how charities are distributed across the country and started to map this with deprivation data to understand if our funds were reaching areas where the need was likely to be greater, this in turn led to us prioritising different aspects of an application, rather than simply awarding grants to the best written proposals.  

What were the challenges of starting out and how much has changed since then? 

We are a foundation that awards grants generated from fundraised income, so a big challenge was appealing to our donors with only a tiny portfolio of grants. Even though we felt we had good knowledge and insight, we still started out relatively blind to the thousands of charities working in the space we were keen to support. We also had to focus a lot on our systems, policies, processes and governance, while developing working relationships. A lot has changed since then, and I hope that we are delivering best practice with our programmes and able to give our grant making the time and energy it deserves. Our systems have improved so we are more efficient, which is important as we operate with a very small team and time is always a challenge.  

Since your foundation started operating, have you noticed any changes in its income? Has it been affected by the cost-of-living crisis?  

Our income is generated by colleagues, customers and suppliers of McCarthy Stone, which is matched by the company. Voluntary fundraising is tougher in the current economic climate but thanks to the energy and generosity of the foundation’s supporters and the McCarthy Stone group, our income is increasing. Our main response to the cost-of-living crisis has been to focus on our grants, delivering unrestricted funds quickly and simply that can be used to mitigate the rising costs charities face.  

What advice would you give to a newly registered trust? 

While it’s great to aim high, it’s not realistic to think your programme will work perfectly from day one. The more assumptions you are making with your programme or theory of change, the higher the margin for error. Get making some grants, accept you won’t get them all perfect, and then keep reflecting, listening, and adjust course accordingly. There are some fantastic resources, for example the Stronger Foundation’s reports from the ACF are full of great examples of grant practices. Other funders working in a similar field may also be happy to share their experiences. I’d also say it is essential to get your vision, mission and values absolutely nailed down from the get-go, as this should underpin your operational decisions. Invest in this and it will reduce the likelihood of needing to change course later. Lastly, ambition is needed, but cut your cloth to fit, and ensure that your ambitions are realistic for your means. 

What advice would you give to those making applications to new trusts? 

Making applications to new trusts can be challenging as there is less of a record to look at in terms of what they have funded previously (e.g., annual reports or 360 Giving), and the trust may not be as clear about their objectives as an established funder. Wherever possible, reach out with an enquiry – just a brief email to clarify criteria and outline briefly your organisation/proposal. Now we are established we don’t have to work as hard to find organisations doing the work we want to support, but when we started, this was a challenge, particularly as we were looking for the smaller, grassroots organisations. Make sure you are including the key information that the funder is looking for – again, it is unlikely that the application and assessment processes will be as embedded as an established funder so try to make it easy for them to support you. I appreciate that trusts can vary in how they engage with grant seekers so it is worth checking websites/social media accounts to see if the funder has any staff you can reach out to because trustees may not be as able to respond to all enquiries. 

What do you think the greatest non-financial challenges facing the charity sector are?  

There is a scarcity of volunteers and staff in key positions within charities, and the loss of Local Authority services means that charities are increasingly trying to fill the many service gaps and deprivation in communities. There is also a challenge with where charities are located, with the most deprived areas often being those with the fewest charities. This raises questions over whether funding is being distributed equitably or where it is really needed most, which we try to address through a deprivation lens on our grant assessment process. As a sector we still have challenges with public trust and perception with only 55% of people across the country feeling that charities are generally trustworthy.  

What is the most rewarding thing about being involved with your foundation?  

As a foundation that generates its income from fundraising, it is hugely rewarding to be trusted with the responsibility of distributing those funds and it’s something we take very seriously. Over time we havefound a niche for our grants, which are smart and targeted. They can cover an organisation’s core costs, where a few £1,000s make a big impact on community initiatives for older people. Seeing the difference this makes in helping older people to lead fulfilling lives and seeing our colleagues, customers and partners engaging with our work is a real privilege.  

Thank you so much to Graeme and the rest of the team at the McCarthy Stone Foundation for contributing to this article. It is great to see a trust that we featured in a previous edition of New Trusts flourish and continue to support its beneficiaries. The foundation’s open grant programme re-opens this summer. Please visit the foundation’s website here for further information and updates.   

If you wish to purchase the latest edition of The Guide to New Trusts, you can do so here.