AT a time when supporting our communities is more important than ever, it is entirely fitting that the 25th anniversary of the County Durham Community Foundation should coincide with the biggest public health crisis in a generation.

Throughout that quarter of a century, CDCF has been a force for good across Durham, Darlington and Tees Valley, awarding £45m to grassroots good causes.

That includes £1m during the lockdown period alone, after the community foundation launched an emergency fund.

It is a silver anniversary marked by countless silver linings for those who need help the most.

But although the pandemic has underlined the value of the grant-giving charity, chief executive Michelle Cooper insists the fundamental need for the foundation hasn’t changed in those 25 years.

“We may have adapted to different challenges, through different political eras, but the sad truth is that the reasons for setting up the foundation – poverty and inequality – are still the same, and it isn’t going to get any better for the foreseeable future,” says Michelle, who took over as chief executive two years ago.

The origins of CDCF can be traced back to the American mid-west, where automotive pioneer Charles Mott launched a charitable foundation in response to deep concerns about the welfare of people in his local community in Flint, Michigan.

The Mott Foundation, launched in 1926, grew into one of the world’s leading philanthropic institutions, inspiring others to follow. In the early 1990s, a challenge was issued to UK regions to raise £1m, which would be match-funded.

The Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, David Grant, and Sir Paul Nicholson, chief executive of Vaux Breweries, picked up the gauntlet and County Durham Community Foundation was born.

The influence of the foundation has grown steadily ever since, but the lockdown has been a defining period of Michelle’s tenure, and she is justifiably proud of the way her team has responded.

“They’ve gone to extraordinary lengths to keep working, stepping up to turn round applications, and get the support to where it’s needed,” she says. “Within 24 hours of lockdown, we were making the first grant, with people working from home, and it was wonderful to see.

“In many ways, getting the money out is the easy part – the real hard work is done by the groups out in the communities.”

Businesses have also risen to the challenge, and Michelle, left, points to the example of Harry Banks, who launched The Banks Group in Tow Law, in 1976, and has been one of CDCF’s most consistent partners, setting up the Banks Community Fund to make a difference in locations across the county.

“Harry’s a successful local lad who is a great example of someone giving back to the grassroots,” she says.

HANDCRAFTED Projects, a community organisation with hubs in Langley Moor, Chester-le-Street and Gateshead, was the organisation that took CDCF over the £1m mark for grants handed out during lockdown.

The group empowers vulnerable people – including those with physical and mental health conditions, homeless people, ex-offenders, and victims of substance and alcohol abuse – to realise their potential. Handcrafted Projects has received more than £112,000 over the years and, during lockdown, financial aid from CDCF enabled three staff to be redeployed to deliver meals as well as mental health support and practical help to 300 individuals across County Durham.

“The foundation has been great at enabling us to grow and help us reach some of the most vulnerable people in County Durham,” says Harry Jennings, Business Development Officer for Handcrafted Projects.

“There obviously has to be a rigorous process when grants are being given out, but CDCF is very willing to listen to what we need, and be flexible. They are the first to notice when issues need to be resolved and say ‘yes, we can help with that.’”

TIN Arts has been applying for grants from CDCF since 2006, and has received more than £55,000.

The organisation aims to open up access to the arts, and one of its latest projects, The Creative Couch, provides home-based activities for people with learning disabilities and autism.

Director Martin Wilson said: “CDCF has played a huge part in making County Durham a more inclusive place. Without doubt, it has helped shape culture and well-being in the county.

“Apart from the funding side, CDCF is very good at listening. The people there know it’s not a perfect world, and that things change, so they are flexible and grow with you. Tin Arts wouldn’t have the reach it has without the foundation – it is one of the reasons we have achieved so much.”

LESLEY Spuhler’s dealings with CDCF go back to when she was working part-time at Brandon and Carrside Youth and Community Project, more than 20 years ago, and applied for a £3,000 grant.

Since then, the project has received more than £40,000, and Lesley has continued working with CDCF since becoming Chief Executive of the Foundation of Light in 1991.

The Foundation of Light, launched by former Sunderland Football Club chairman, Sir Bob Murray, has outreach centres across the county, with CDCF a regular source of support.

The latest project to be backed by CDCF, was Stanley Kicks. Launched just before the pandemic, it has continued as an online youth club.

“Right from the start, CDCF has provided consistent help, and what makes it so effective is that it simplifies processes and speeds everything up,” says Lesley.

IN contrast to the long association enjoyed by Lesley Spuhler, the business support organisation, UMi, is one of the latest partners to place its trust in CDCF.

After attending a CDCF lunch, Chief Executive, Nicki Clark, was inspired to set up the UMi Community Fund a year ago, with the company donating money annually to be distributed to good causes, cutting across all walks of life and generations.

“Michelle and her team are just a brilliant combination of professionalism and compassion,” says Nicki.

Whatever new challenges arise over the next 25 years, County Durham Community Foundation is sure to be at the heart of helping to find the answers.