Fionnuala Walsh, Chair of Funders Forum for Northern Ireland

Funders Forum for Northern Ireland Annual Conference

Fionnuala Walsh, Chair of Funders Forum for Northern Ireland, reports on this year’s Annual Conference

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 moving forward.

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.

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.

The conference identified the many challenges ahead, but also identified where the Funders Forum, as a collective, with significant investment and a depth of insight, can make a constructive and impactful contribution. With our different remits, we have looked at possible solutions and ways to progress some of the things that have been long-term issues for our sector and that have been reinforced during the pandemic.  I hope that sustained and purposeful collaboration can unlock some of these issues and create the conditions to build back better and build back fairer.

Finally, as I begin my term as Chair of Funders Forum for Northern Ireland, I am reminded that we can also adopt the community development ethos ‘stronger together’.

As we move into a new year, I would like the Forum to engage more deeply with funders across the UK and the Republic of Ireland, with a view to sharing insight and learning and to increase understanding of the issues relevant to Northern Ireland.

The Funders Forum for Northern Ireland is a membership forum made up of representatives of organisations who fund and make grants in Northern Ireland. Funders Forum for Northern Ireland is a mix of independent and semi-independent funders with access to significant resources. The Funders Forum for Northern Ireland recognises the different funding roles and remits of its members and acknowledges their independence.

The Conference Report can be found at:

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