New boy is ready to give with a purpose

It's Rob Williamson's first day as chief executive of the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

Rob Williamson
Rob Williamson

DAY one of a new job. There’s apprehension, excitement, eagerness and tension – all of that and more.

It’s stressful enough being a beginner slipping in the side door, but starting day one as the top man whose every decision will be analysed brings its own pressures.

Rob Williamson starts his new job today (monday) as chief executive of the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

It’s a hugely influential and authoritative role, but one that the charismatic 38-year-old will undoubtedly take in his stride – because he’s served a long apprenticeship.

His commitment to social justice and passionate campaigning in the voluntary sector have developed from early close contact with the homeless and by working through caseloads of people on welfare benefits.

He has seen what life has thrown at some of society’s unfortunates but he has had the ability and the desire to do something to help them.

"I got interested in student welfare at university when there were big changes going on," he says.

"Student finances changed, loans were introduced and access to housing benefit was removed.

"There was a higher awareness towards money – who had what and what things cost – which brought me closer to world issues such as Amnesty International. Things like that led me to work in housing and homelessness."

Rob has spent the majority of his career in the North East after graduating from York University in 1992.

He worked for Newcastle City Council, first in voluntary services then as a policy and strategy officer on the social policy and corporate initiatives team.

He joined Northern Rock Foundation in 2003, becoming director of policy and communications.

He takes over at the Community Foundation from the long-serving George Hepburn – its driving force since it began in 1988.

It is the largest and most successful of the 60-plus Community Foundations in the country and manages charitable funds for both local families and companies which have large operations in the region, such as Procter & Gamble and Ringtons.

It awarded £7.8m last year to 1,700 organisations.

Some would call that philanthropy but Rob Williamson seems uncomfortable with the definition. "Philanthropy is a word that went out of fashion," he says after tossing it around for a moment. "People think of the Victorians.

"It’s giving with a purpose. The Community Foundation is about being part of the community.

"In the charity sector, most members of the public are involved in giving either through payroll or by direct debit, or buying through a charity shop. There’s a great tradition of that in this part of the country – it keeps society moving.

"Why? It’s got to be something to do with the culture of the North East, where people are used to helping each other out and our businesses benefiting from a decent quality of life.

"The Community Foundation is the glue that holds everything together."

Community foundations are a type of charitable trust which works as grant-maker, endowment builder and community leader. They are an American concept brought to the UK in the 1980s. Over the last two decades, they have spread rapidly around the globe and are one of the fastest growing manifestations of public spiritedness.

As an example, The North East Hindu Cultural Trust was recently awarded £5,000 from the Community Foundation through Grassroots Grants to hold dance classes and to develop a drama group.

The classes will culminate in a performance called Living With My Neighbour that aims to cross cultural barriers and create community cohesion.

Following the event, the group plans to create a book filled with arts, poetry and essays inspired by the workshops and performance before taking their skills to local schools to raise cultural awareness of Hindu beliefs and practices.

"It’s easy to talk about helpful grant-making," says Williamson, "but what interests me as much is engaging with businesses and individuals who want to give, plus the people on the ground who can make use of that money.

"Giving through the Community Foundation is a real measure of its worth.

"I’ve been lucky in my career to work with people who are really inspiring, those always keen to develop professionally and to do all the right things.

"What I bring is experience in the voluntary sector, of how you go about the business of making grants, particularly disciplines like investment.

"I have the experience now but what’s important in this job is understanding the organisations that the Community Foundation addresses and works well with.

"It’s not a nine-to-five job. It’s a very public-facing job having to represent the foundation at all sorts of places – lots, lots, lots of people to meet and lots of faces to remember.

"I’ll talk to them as potential donors. They’re people who you can’t reach during the normal working day, so it’s a lot of out-of-hours in a setting that’s not normal business. I accept that."

We watch a train crawl over the High Level Bridge, but the triple glazing on the Community Foundation office eyrie ensures there’s no sound whatsoever.

The engine, carriages and Robert Stephenson’s mighty structure look like freshly-unboxed toys. It’s a charming distraction.

Rob says: "It’s nice to be back in the centre of town. Northern Rock was a really nice place to work, but it’s good being in the city centre.

"In business, it’s important to be in a location where you can engage with people, to make them feel welcome.

"We talk about donor care and donor enjoyment and we wouldn’t exist if people didn’t decide to channel their donations through the community.

"When you look at the likes of the regenerated Quayside, some people might think ‘is there really a need to give to local communities in Newcastle, Berwick or South Shields – hasn’t it all been done?’

"The impact of the recession counters that. We take donors to visit some of the projects to see where the grants go and what impact they have.

"It’s a very important aspect of the work we do. It’s not just sitting people in an office and getting them interested in supporting – there’s a link between local donors and the community they live in. It’s a bit like the Secret Millionaire television series. Needs lie around the corner from where we live.

"The environment is an issue, as is men’s health, and even a bit of money is put aside to do work outside the UK. Some people want their giving to be used globally, so we have an international development infrastructure.

"In a recession, we understand even more that there are people in need nearby and who we shouldn’t ignore. The real challenge is that the North East has had a lot of regeneration money, but underlying that are a lot of social and economic issues that haven’t surfaced.

"We’re the social glue – great activities in community centres, community festivals, community in bloom, things that give people pride, plus the hard-nosed services. We help build relationships in communities when there’s added pressure."

So, is it to be first-day whirlwind with changes in mind, new broom and all that?

"This is a fantastic time to come on board," says Rob. "There’s nothing better than taking on an organisation that’s doing really well.

"The staff are doing an amazing job and I’m not here to fix a broken organisation – I’m here for the evolution and for the development over the next five to 10 years.

"I have to think who the next generation of donors will be, how to keep existing donors and how to bring in new projects.

"The role is not just giving out cash, it’s providing leadership."

Day one, water-cooler analysis is already over and sleeves are rolled up.

Page 3: Questionnaire

Questionnaire

WHAT car do you drive?
Mini Cooper.

What’s your favourite restaurant?
Café 21.

Who or what makes you laugh?
Eddie Izzard and Victoria Wood.

What’s your favourite book?
Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson.

What was the last album you bought?
Gossip – Music For Men.

What’s your ideal job, other than the one you’ve got?
Photographer.

If you had a talking parrot, what’s the first thing you would teach it to say?
"Who’s a pretty boy then?"

What’s your greatest fear?
The far-right gaining greater power in British politics.

What’s the best piece of business advice you have ever received?
Build a professional network of people that you trust.

What’s the worst piece of business advice?
Nothing specific, but I think you have to learn to tell the difference between someone offering constructive criticism and someone pursuing their own agenda.

What’s your poison?
Hendrick’s and tonic (with a slice of cucumber).

What newspapers do you read, other than The Journal?
The Guardian and The Economist.

How much was your first pay packet and what was it for?
About £1.80 for delivering free newspapers.

How do you keep fit?
Not enough, but aim to walk to work more!

What’s your most irritating habit?
Reading the newspaper in company.

What’s your biggest extravagance?
Eating out.

Which historical or fictional character do you identify with/admire?
Mark Twain had some pretty sage things to say.

Which four famous people would you most like to dine with?
Alan Bennett, Julie Walters, Shami Chakrabarti and Annie Lennox.

How would you like to be remembered?
Fondly and with a smile.

 

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