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Byline: By Rebekah Ashby

Banking group Northern Rock pledges 5pc of its pre-tax profits each year - almost pounds 100m since it began - to support charitable causes in the region. Rebekah Ashby takes a look at who's benefiting from the Northern Rock Foundation.

The Duchess of Northumberland's dream of a mighty treehouse at Alnwick Garden, help for drug addicts and the biggest literary award in the country are just some of the causes a North-East company's charitable trust has helped since its launch seven years ago.

The Northern Rock Foundation was established in 1997 after Northern Rock Building Society converted to a public limited company (plc).

It supports a host of charitable causes in Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear, County Durham and Teesside - communities from which the former Northern Rock mutual building society drew its strength.

It helps fund a multitude of projects in the North-East. The foundation's primary aim is to help improve the conditions of those disadvantaged in society.

The foundation's assistant director of policy and communication, Rob Williamson, said: "We are really looking to fund projects that are going to deliver good results for disadvantaged communities.

"We don't dictate exactly what we expect a particular organisation to achieve because each project is so different. What we do instead is set out some guidelines of priority areas.

"So, for example, one of our priorities at the moment is to help people with learning difficulties and to make sure there are high-quality services available for that group."

This year the foundation will give pounds 22m to tackle disadvantage and raise quality of life in the region. It receives by covenant about 5pc of Northern Rock plc's pre-tax profits each year.

The foundation is independent of the plc and its own board of trustees determines its policies and grant making.

Mr Williamson said: "Once an application for funding comes in, it goes to grant officers for consideration. We currently have four full-time and one part-time grant officers as well as three senior members of staff who will do assessments as well. Some funders use a tick box or scoring system to make their decisions, but we don't use such a fixed process. We like to have conversations with organisations about what they want to achieve and why they think a project will work.

"We want them to articulate that back to us and provide us with the assurances that they are able to deliver and have the right systems and management in place."

In 2003 the foundation made 346 grants, worth pounds 17m.

It invested a further pounds 2m in an initiative designed to support voluntary-sector training needs.

Mr Williamson said: "We fund everything from very small community projects to entire regional bodies of national charities. That's because the voluntary sector is as diverse as the private sector. The private sector is everything from a corner shop to a multi-national corporation - the community sector is no different.

"Often, in the case of small community projects, they have no paid staff so we do a lot of funding in that field and it makes a lot of difference."

Last year, a new charity made its mark in Blyth, Northumberland, with ex-offenders and drug addicts.

Second Chance, based in the former fire station in Union Street, offers a fresh start to ex-offenders through training and support.

It has set up a paintball centre, outdoor activity centre and an off-road driving scheme as part of its training programme.

Mr Williamson said: "In the past we have made some quite interesting grants to fund restorative projects.

"These looked at how prisoners could work on community projects that had a real public benefit. We did work in Middlesbrough restoring Albert Park and then in Gateshead at Saltwell Park."

During this project prisoners from five institutions in the North-East set about improving the park and introducing facilities with educational benefit, including bird boxes and picnic tables.

Since 1997, Northern Rock Foundation has invested almost pounds 100m in charitable causes.

It is now one of the largest independent grant makers in the country.
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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:The Journal (Newcastle, England)
Date:Mar 23, 2004
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