Business Interview: Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light

Foundation of Light chief executive reveals how the North East business community can help empower people to drive the economy forward

Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light
Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light

It’s a plan that promises to take the Foundation of Light’s mission to a new level.

The Beacon of Light’s potential is palpable, the foundation’s work having already exceed all expectations by harnessing the power of football to involve, educate and inspire more than 42,000 people every year.

All that stands in the way is the matter of fundraising a cool £15m to pay for its construction and fit-out – and that’s on top of the £3.5m needed every year to keep the work of the Foundation of Light going.

It may seem like an insurmountable task but, thankfully, the woman at the helm of the foundation is well versed in fundraising, a skill she’s honed ever since she drummed up funds for a County Durham youth club as a teenager, while volunteering and studying by night and holding down a full-time job by day.

Joining the foundation in 2002, Lesley Spuhler was given carte blanche by former SAFC chairman and businessman Sir Bob Murray to develop the club’s community programme.

Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light
Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light

Since then, Lesley has overseen its transformation from a three-man team with a vision of engaging with the community to one of the biggest, most effective charities of its kind.

Now employing around 170 people, the trust delivers award-winning programmes to thousands of people every year, working with scores of North East businesses and a passionate workforce bursting with skills and experience, to ultimately make a real difference in the region.

The community work being carried out now is impressive, with programmes in careers and training, fitness and health, youth and sports clubs and – of course – football coaching, at the Stadium of Light and in schools .

But Lesley believes the Beacon of Light will unlock much more potential, in around 300,000 people a year.

Determined to bring the plans to fruition, is galvanising the North East business community into supporting the plans.

She is certainly experienced at raising funds from a standing start.

Born and raised in the County Durham mining village of Brandon, Lesley left school at 16 and “fell into” voluntary work and informal education, while working for National Savings, seeking out voluntary work on free evenings, in between night-time studies.

She said: “It was a conscious decision to leave school at 16 and to go out and pay my own way – but I’m a big believer in education so decided to do my A-levels at night.

“At the same time I wanted to do some volunteering at a youth club in Brandon. There was a picture of my dad there from when it opened, so it was like we’d gone full circle.

“On the first night I remember a kid saying ‘our last youth worker got stabbed’ and went home thinking ‘what have I got myself into?’ but I love problem solving and wanted to make a difference.

Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light
Lesley Spuhler, chief executive of the Foundation of Light

“Why volunteer? When I was starting out it was working with young people, that absolutely was the driver and I realised that this was the career I wanted.”

Wanting more community qualifications, Lesley went through distance learning programmes at the George Williams College in London, specialists in community education, all while volunteering at the youth club and still in full time employment with National Savings.

Once qualified, she jumped at the chance to work for the Prince’s Trust, but only leaving her youth club work when enough money had been raised to get a full time worker in place.

“I was the first development worker for the Princes Trust and it was an exciting time,” she said.

“I was in Gateshead and when they showed me my office I was the only one in it!

“I was told ‘you will have to find the money to buy your stuff’. It was a case of beg and borrow the papers and pens, but it was a really interesting time.”

After several years with the Prince’s Trust – where she also oversaw enjoyable royal visits – a spell with the Community Foundation in Tyne and Wear and Northumberland followed, as fund manager, looking for grant recipients while working with core North East businesses such as Newcastle Building Society, Sage and Procter and Gamble.

Grants from anywhere between £500 and £1m were giving to great causes during her time there, but an even bigger call beckoned when she read a piece in the paper in 2001 about Sir Bob Murray’s plans to start the SAFC Foundation charity at Sunderland football club.

“I remember thinking this is the job for me – this is MY job. We would have it a bit of a laugh about it at work. Little did I know a few months later I’d be working there,” she said.

Headhunted by a recruitment firm, she took up the post of chief executive, starting the Foundation of Light from scratch.

“There are a lot of football clubs which had charities, but they were more about football coaching,” she recalled.

“When we established the foundation it was a fresh start. We wanted it to be more about education – informal education.

“We had a blank sheet of paper, a fantastic football club, fantastic brand, but a blank sheet in terms of what we could do for the benefit of young people of Sunderland through their love of football.”

Getting off the ground, the foundation received help from the Coalfields Regeneration Trust and Northern Rock. All the local authorities, especially Sunderland City Council, were also generous. Soon its moved into a own purpose-built home adjoining the Stadium of Light.

“We had to raise £1.7m to open classrooms and the club gave us this amazing space. We raised the money to get it kitted out and opened five classrooms.

“At that point I wondered ‘how are we going to be able to fill these classrooms?’ It didn’t take long, and soon we were using the boxes and suites as well.”

Now the foundation has more 170 staff, Lesley having spearheaded the drive to take in the best teaching professionals to drive forward programmes for people of all ages, helping them to make better choices in their careers and lives in general.

She said: “We are a business within our own right, voluntary sector agency but it’s important that the quality is right and that the outcome of the families is right, so we have the best teachers, youth workers, sports coaches and admin staff.

“90% of the £3.5m needed to run it we raise ourselves, plus we get a lot of goodwill from the football club, lots and lots of gifts in kind, access to players and the stadium.

“The rest comes from fundraising – generous individuals and regular fundraising events.”

Lesley’s connections with the business community have been fostered over many years, and she is very thankful to the North East business community for their support so far – and hopes they will dig deep now to back the Beacon.

She said: “The business community is very good to us. Caterpillar in Peterlee were our first corporate donor, opened an outreach centre there in 2009 and they continue to support us.

“We have got 144 different business involved – everything from big donors to businesses signed up for corporate membership.

“And one of the most important things that they give is programmes for the unemployed.

“The unemployed are marginalised from the education system so businesses work with us to offer mentoring and workshops to help with doing interviews and brushing up CVs.”

After initially wondering if people would take to the charity’s workshops and programmes, the Foundation is currently bursting at the seams and in desperate need of extra space.

“We’ve outgrown the resource we have and now we have two challenges – getting the building right and working with the fantastic architects at FaulknerBrowns to do that, and the fundraising.

“It’s going to cost £15m and that, in this economic climate, is a tough thing to do.

“We are confident that the need is great and, right now, we are slap bang in the middle of the fundraising campaign, while also making sure we don’t take our eye off the foundation work itself, which continues to need £3.5m a year.

“This project is a capital expenditure building, but it’s about much more than a building. There is so much more that we can do to offer skills and employment opportunities.

“Building work will start in 2016 and we want to open in 2017, and we need the money before we build, so we have 10 months to raise £7m.”

A tall order, you may think, but plans have recently been unveiled which more than put flesh on the Beacon’s bones, details which Lesley said are turning the capital campaign into an attractive tangible entity.

Plans submitted to Sunderland City Council detail its classrooms, multi-purpose rooms, floodlit football pitches, 4,000-capacity hall for sports and other community events, food and drink facilities as well as retail space.

Constructed over six storeys, the development will provide 11,140sq metres of accommodation and occupy 4.75 hectares with five separate zones including the six-classroom public education zone, the Sunderland Centre of Opportunity, the World of Work zone, Health and Wellbeing Zone and Sports and Play Zone.

All of those provide sponsorship opportunities, which Lesley is eager to fulfil.

Lesley said: “There are lots of corporate opportunities within the build – naming opportunities, the chance for a headline sponsor as well as other naming rights in the building’s suites.

“So at the moment I’m talking to trusted foundations, individuals and companies, and a public campaign will be launched later this year.”

With an office backdrop like the Stadium of Light it’s not hard to see why Lesley has contentedly spent 13 years at the Foundation.

During that time the business has grown phenomenally, and it’s fair to see Lesley’s energy, enthusiasm and unwavering passion for informal education has been a key driver.

“I have always had rose-tinted glasses, probably to my detriment sometimes,” she said.

“I like to challenge myself, the staff and the young people and other participants, so once you get to a goal you move the goalposts.

“But no, from that blank sheet of paper at the start I never thought the foundation would be as big as this.

“When we started I didn’t think we’d fill the classrooms, but the strength and the success of the foundation is down to the people that surround it, including the club and players, Sir Bob Murray, and trustees I have always been able to turn to like Baroness Estelle Morris and James Ramsbotham.

“Could I see myself doing anything else and moving on? I ask myself that a lot and I don’t know – I’m too focussed on what we need to do for the next three years.

“We have 5,000 to 6,000 people come through every week, so that’s what I’m really focussed on – ensuring that the Foundation is sustainable.

“The North East is a wonderful place to live but there is still a lot to do to close the gap and, particularly through our work, we can help communities improve and reach for the stars.”


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