This week the Co-op Foundation team and a group of our Trustees visited 42nd Street’s impressive youth space, ‘The Horsfall’ in Manchester’s Northern Quarter.

Located a short walk from our own offices, the building combines a creative, modern design with acknowledging the area’s historical ties to 19th century social reformers.  This blend of proud heritage and bold innovation felt familiar to those of us who work at the Co-op.

We learned how, in the 1870s, Thomas Horsfall funded a free gallery for the poor residents of Ancoats. And today, art continues to act as a powerful catalyst for good: The Horsfall offers a range of creative programmes to support young people with their mental health.

This started with the building itself. When 42nd Street began converting their Victorian site into a unique youth venue, young people worked with the architect to design a physical space that would contribute to their emotional wellbeing.

It is ideal for activities like immersive theatre, a technique used by 42nd Street to explore topics that young people can find difficult to talk about.  Loneliness is one such subject. As part of our Belong programme, they developed ‘Missing’, an interactive play in which the audience discovers how an apparently happy and ‘normal’ teenager starts to feel her life falling out of control.   

Seeing first-hand where this project took place, meeting the people involved, and understanding how young people shaped it at every step, brings a vital human dimension to the Foundation’s work as a grant-maker.

Emergency responses

Our relationship with 42nd Street meant that last May, when a bomb blast in the nearby Manchester Arena took 22 lives and injured many more, we were quickly able to find out how this traumatic event was affecting local young people.

We learned that as well as a short-term need for more staff to offer fast access to therapeutic support, it was necessary to build the confidence of community organisations across Greater Manchester to offer mental health care closer to home.

Working closely with contacts at the Big Lottery Fund, we made a fast-tracked grant award that would enable this work to start in time for the school holidays, when many young people would be particularly vulnerable. By pooling resources and keeping processes to a minimum, we were able to get money quickly to where it was needed.

This example of streamlined, collaborative grant-making features in a new report by the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) looking at learning from funders’ responses to three 2017 emergencies: the terrorist attacks in Manchester and London, and the Grenfell Tower fire. The research highlights how, faced with these extreme circumstances, grant-makers sought new ways to speed up decisions and reduce the burdens on community organisations.

As one community group in London described it, the funding process felt “so much more human than usual.”

Trust and relationships were crucial in making this possible. For the Co-op Foundation, our existing knowledge of 42nd Street gave us confidence in both their assessment of what was needed and their ability to deliver. We also knew that the Big Lottery Fund, like us, values solutions that empower communities to meet their own needs; this shared outlook helped us align and simplify our procedures.

IVAR’s research concludes by calling for lessons from these emergency responses to be applied to the everyday relationships between grant-makers and the groups they fund. More collaboration and streamlined processes seem like obviously good things to strive for.

But we must be cautious of over-relying on our immediate networks. The Co-op Foundation exists to benefit communities UK-wide, yet if a similar atrocity happened in another city where we didn’t have such close contacts, would we be able to respond as quickly, as confidently, or at all?  

At the launch of IVAR’s report, we heard from the Charity Commission about some promising steps being taken to improve the infrastructure for cross-sector collaboration in future emergencies. Within this, there must be a mechanism to facilitate rapid co-ordination between grant-makers who want to respond to community needs wherever they might occur.

Everyday relationships

For now, we will continue to invest in our everyday relationships with the organisations we fund through our Belong network. Although they are spread across all nations and regions of the UK, next week they will come together in Manchester to share their learning and explore opportunities for closer collaboration.

These organisations are our partners in a common endeavour, to understand youth loneliness and find effective solutions. We can’t deliver our purpose without them – and it should not take an emergency to bring us closer together, and do everything we can to make our grant-making as ‘human’ a process as possible.


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