Doing Good In The North East

In October, Michelle Cooper, Chief Executive at County Durham Community Foundation, was awarded an MBE for her outstanding contribution to the community - the icing on the cake after a very busy and incredibly rewarding period...
County Durham Community Foundation

There’s no doubt about it, this year has been incredibly tough – particularly for charities and those in need.

But for Michelle Cooper and her team at County Durham Community Foundation, it’s been a time to really showcase what they
do best – putting smiles on faces by giving back to the local community.

County Durham Community Foundation manages over 200 charitable funds and offers much-needed grants to charities, individuals and organisations – covering everything from mental health, to those with disabilities and financial difficulties.

Such grants are made possible by the generosity of individuals and local businesses. The foundation is built on teamwork; and its the foundation staff, charities, local people and businesses that form the beating heart of that team.

Michelle heads up that team, but insists the foundation’s work comes down to everyone involved, as we sit down to talk about her recent appearance on the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.

“Not very gracefully,” Michelle laughs as I ask how she received the news.

“I’m a huge believer in team playing – nothing is about an individual – so as you can imagine, it was tough for me to stand in the limelight.

“But if this MBE helps to shine a light on the hundreds of special people in the region who make a difference in our communities then a little bit of embarrassment is well worth it,” she smiles.

“I had to have a debate with a few close friends as to whether I accepted it because it’s not about me. I’m not one for taking the praise. But I was rightly convinced to take it on behalf of the foundation and the groups that we’ve worked with along the way.”

During a very busy time, which has seen the foundation award £1.2m to the local community in just 120 days, it’s certainly a welcome reward – and a fantastic way to shout about their efforts.

“And that, for me, is why this is all so important – because we have done an amazing job.

“When the going got tough, we unlocked loads of funding and we got vital grants to help people help others.

“We’ve been there in a crisis and we’ll be there for the whole journey, helping communities get through this pandemic.”

The foundation celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and looking back at its remarkable achievements, Michelle is incredibly proud to be a part of it.

“We have awarded over £46m over the years. We’ve been doing what we do for a long, long time, but now is the time to really reach out and change lives.

“We’re making a real effort to big-up our stories, because they say so much about what we do as a foundation. There’s a lovely story about a young girl who first started going to Brandon Boxing Club aged five. She is now 12-years-old and was one of the first people to go back to the club when the lockdown restrictions eased and it was able to open up again. We helped fund the reopening of the club with sanitisers and signs – all of these extra costs that businesses were suddenly facing in order to operate.

“I just love Grace’s story. Her whole life has been informed by the disciplines and friendships formed at that club – as well as the opportunity to travel internationally for tournaments.

“We’ve supported that charity over a period of 15 years, and I think that says a lot about what a community foundation does. It doesn’t just support you once and walk away, it is there with you for the journey – and in this case, that journey is encapsulated in that young girl. It’s a fantastic thing to be a part of, it really is.”

So, how can individuals and businesses offer their support?

“By giving, fundamentally,” says Michelle.

“One of the things we’re always really keen to stress is that anything that anyone can give makes a difference.

“We gave one grant out recently and they reported back to say they helped 750 people from £4,200 – which works out at about £5 per person. It just proves how one little intervention can have a huge impact on somebody’s life.

“People can give through our website – they can give as little as £1, they can give as much as £100,000. The foundation can accommodate all of that. You can create your own personal fund, or you can give into a generic fund that we distribute on behalf of a collective of donors.

“Some businesses create funds with us. They decide to give through us because they recognise that we know hundreds of groups embedded within the local community and that we can get that funding to where it’s needed most.”

And how easy is it to apply for a grant?

“Incredibly easy,” Michelle explains.

“What is wonderful about working in the community is the power of cross-referrals – and of course, social media. People share our stories, which encourages others to visit our website, where they can fill out a simple application form.”

What is so incredibly unique about giving to a community foundation, is the ability to see exactly where your donations are going.

“The foundation is not about us,” says Michelle.

“We have the easy bit – we get the money, we give it to groups – they do the amazing stuff with it. Our job is about ensuring that we tell that story to the donor. We arrange visits so people can see exactly who they’ve supported and how it has made a difference.

“Sometimes there’s a lovely backstory, sometimes they’re really tough stories to hear, and sometimes it’s just about putting. a smile on someone’s face for a little while.

“Those are the stories we are trying to tell. To bring everybody’s efforts to life. Giving – and giving locally – really does make a difference.”

Facts & Figures

– The foundation awarded £1.3m to local communities in just 120 days

– The foundation supported 250,000 people across the Tees Valley and County Durham throughout the pandemic

– 36% helped people manage loneliness, mental health, wellbeing and staying connected

– 42% went on practical support for isolated, vulnerable people

–  £140,000 of the money raised during lockdown helped keep the lights on and the doors open for 30 organisations, providing services and support to more than 30,000 people in need

– 22% supported groups to adapt their service

– Need for what the foundation does went up by 600% overnight

For more information, visit

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