Meet Victoria Miles, CEO of Northamptonshire Community Foundation
Here, Victoria – who is set to take on a new role as CEO of The Parks Trust in Milton Keynes in a few months – reflects on her 15 years at the Foundation, and shares many of the lessons she has learned about community and philanthropy along the way. Victoria, who received an MBE in the New Year's Honours list in recognition for services to the community in Northamptonshire during Covid-19, is excited about her new challenge but also hugely proud of all the Foundation has achieved since its inception and her appointment …
Stay focused and avoid ‘mission drift’
One of my biggest learnings since joining the Foundation has been the importance of staying focused. In this role this has meant keeping my eye firmly on growing the endowment, a pot of funding for the future, as and when need arises. Over the years people have asked me: ‘Why on earth would you want to sit on all this money and not give it out now?’ I had a wobble about this in the early days, but now – especially when you see what we were able to do during Covid – I am utterly convinced that planning for the future is and should always be the priority.
Community foundations are all about long term sustainability and getting buy in from people who want to give and convincing them that long term investment is far better for an area than short term has been a challenge - but the hard work has paid off.
Focusing on the long term means our donors can still support issues and challenges now, but more importantly perhaps they will be funding ones we don’t even know about.
My early days
When I started we had £400,000 to the Foundation’s name in endowment. There was little there to even sustain staffing and the core costs of the organisation, so we had to move really quickly to build the Foundation, its running costs, reserves and its endowment.
I owe a great deal to David Laing, our then chair, and the trustees, who were all willing to open their address books. They were fabulous. We held and still hold events, but I have learned that these always need to be the right ones and we don’t hold too many. We are not an events organisation. We are here to talk about the phenomenal impact giving has on our communities.
Many of our major fund holders now have been with us since I started. All – which is an incredible thing to say - have now left legacies. I never dreamed that would happen when I started. You hear about people giving during their lifetime, but this is about people committing to leaving money and/or property to the Foundation in their wills. This truly shows the power of the Foundation. We are excellent at understanding communities, giving money where it is most needed and will make the most difference and reporting back on the impact this giving makes.
So many stories
I have so many amazing stories about the groups and people we support and just as many about the generosity of our donors and how they first came to know about the Foundation. I talk a lot at events and meetings about MHA MacIntyre Hudson, a local firm of chartered accountants, tax and business advisers.
One of their advisors had been coming to all our events but for many years but had never donated or referred anyone. I admit I didn’t think this relationship would come to anything, perhaps I should stop inviting her to events I thought. Then, one day, out of the blue, a partner at the company got in touch. He had been told about the Foundation by the advisor. They had an elderly client who wanted to set up a charitable trust. They had encouraged their client to think differently and so, instead of setting up his own charitable trust, consider the community foundation as a model for his philanthropic aims.
He had sold his suede and leather business, his wife had died from cancer and he had nursed her for a couple of years. He has left his entire estate to the foundation and we set up the Suede Respite Fund, in honour of his wife. This fund gives to respite care because he recognised that it is the carers that need some respite.
Making the most of match funding to incentivise
Our work with professional advisors has been essential. I remember meeting a solicitor from Howes Percival, the wonderful Sarah Banner, who is sadly no longer with us. At the time we had match funding which meant we could entice donors to give because we could double their donation.
One of Sarah’s clients had been Cecil Pettit. He had died and had received an MBE for services to people with disability. He was also well known to people on our board. When he died he gave his house, trust, to his gardener - until such time that the gardener died or could not live there. When he got to his 90s and couldn’t manage the house anymore it was sold and it was left in trust to Howes Percival who decided they couldn’t manage the grants programme. So, instead, the house sale came to the community foundation and Cecil Pettit's name and philanthropy lives on through his fund, which continues to focus on providing support to people with disabilities.
It is essential to say thank you. This might sound obvious but you’d be amazed how many charities fail to prioritise this. We try really hard to personalise our thank you letters, and whoever gives – whatever level this is - we say thank you and report back so people can see the difference their giving has made. We tell the stories of people whose lives have been improved.
People give to the Foundation because they love Northamptonshire. They may have grown up here, work here or have family here.
Ensuring you have a strong board
Without a good board you are stuffed as an executive. You can’t do it by yourself. and I truly believe that your board should own philanthropy.
A good board is made up of people with different skills, attributes and experiences – lived ones too, people who are representative of the community we serve. When it comes to your board it should be about the development of the endowment, and also recognising the need in the community. Sometimes your volunteers and trustees have unique insight. This is all about using the community to build the community.
We also have a variety of essential sub-committees that feed into the board. The board should be strategic which means you don’t discuss the operational side of finance, governance and development in detail. That is the job of the sub-committees. This is good charity governance, I have good experience of and will take that knowledge and expertise with me to The Parks Trust.
At the Foundation we have Terms of Office and board members can serve up to two x three-year terms. It’s good to refresh and bring new blood onto the board and trustees, when they move on, they can continue to support the Foundation as Ambassadors and Friends and we actively encourage this.
Asking trustees to give
It took me a while to ask all our trustees to personally give and donate, but I am a strong believer that if you are asking other people to give and you have the ability to give even £10 then you should. I am a Friend of the Foundation and donate annually. I will continue to do this after I leave the Foundation.
The next steps – a new CEO for the Foundation
Because Northamptonshire Community Foundation is about people and place the new CEO will have to make friends quickly and really get to know people. Relationships are interesting - you build them over time and I believe people give to people as well as to the cause of course.
When I accepted a new job at The Parks Trust I phoned all our fund holders to reassure them – you are in good hands, the Foundation is here for years and generations to come.
What can we do to make communities a better place? It is our job to challenge high-net-worth individuals and encourage these people to join us on this journey towards a fairer society.
I come across people who want to make a difference all the time. Many have been fortunate in their lives – not Bill Gates, not that level, but still fortunate. One couple came to us after reading a short story in the Northants Telegraph about grants we had awarded in the north of the county.
They told me they wanted to give back to their community and signed up to become a Friend, donating £2,000 a year. Over the years they got to know the Foundation and when the chap’s father died and left his house to them in his will they decided to sell it, give the funds to the Foundation and set up a named fund. They felt they had enough and cared about the area of Northamptonshire in which they live. They are having the time of their lives with this fund. They do all their giving anonymously and fund a host of community projects and grassroots groups.
They don’t shout about it – they are, quite simply, living examples of people who are already helping the Levelling Up agenda.