City Bridge Trust Turns 25!

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CBT at 25: A Reflection

by Stewart Goshawk

A google search shows September 27th 1995 to be an entirely uneventful day, except for some unseasonal snow in northern England and Simply Red finally sitting at the top of the singles chart.  That leaves the way clear for it to be remembered as the first day of a truly remarkable venture.  Something was afoot in Guildhall, the medieval headquarters of London’s city government. In committee room 5 of Guildhall, fourteen members of the Court of Common Council, under the chairmanship of the late John Bird, approved the first eleven grants totalling £168,350 from the newly-established Bridge House Estates funding-arm, now known as the City Bridge Trust. Bridge House Estates had existed for 900 years, maintaining and managing five of London’s bridges. Now it was time to expand, to start connecting the capital in an additional way. The mission back then was to provide transport and access to it for elderly and disabled people in Greater London, and for other charitable purposes for the general benefit of the inhabitants of Greater London.

At that time, we all had visions of what the Trust might become, but 25 years later and with grants total approaching a staggering £0.5billion, none of us could have foreseen the reach and impact that the Trust would have.

A few of the early staff, including myself, still work for the Trust. In those early days, I recall much debate about exactly who and what the Trust should be funding.  With such a potentially wide brief for the Trust, setting the ground rules early was vital to our success.  Thorny questions such as ‘who qualifies as an inhabitant of London’ and, ‘should the Trust’s scheme fund the large national institutions that happen to be located in London’…Or what about charities around the country that benefit Londoners – Inverness Mountain Rescue probably comes to the aid of the occasional Islington resident? Many hours were spent resolving these knotty problems, coming to a consensus through discussion and recognising that we had to make some hard decisions.  Then, as now, saying “No” can be difficult.  But we knew that we were laying the ground rules for the future, so we had to do what was right.

And it was important back then to establish our place in the world of charitable trusts and foundations, a place traditionally quite mysterious, with philanthropic monies often bestowed from behind closed doors.  From the outset, we did things differently: engaging openly with potential applicants; always visiting an organisation before recommending a grant; giving funding presentations and roadshows; consulting on programme development; the Committee agreeing to hold its meetings in public – and yes, people came to watch.  We were open, visible and accessible.  Common practice now, but it wasn’t back then.

In that first committee meeting, 25 years ago, the Committee approved just 11 grants, totalling £168,350; the first grant awarded was one of £18,000 to Sign, the mental health and deafness charity for a minibus. The committee declined 40 others, with a potential value of £1,478,260. We’ve got better since then at being clear about our mission and vision, putting learning and impact right at the heart of what we do, attracting a good spread of applications. We’ve made the process of applying for a grant easier. We know our funded organisations and fellow foundations better, which means we have greater understanding, collaboration and peer reflection. We will continue learning and getting better at what we do, making more impact as we strive to make this great capital city fairer and more equal, with less people living in the margins, out of reach.

Since that day, 25 years ago, we have spent £445m on 8542 grants. We know that the fantastic organisations we fund and collaborate with have contributed to making huge positive impact on the lives of many Londoners.

Looking back, it was a great leap of faith by so many, and the rewards have been incalculable.  Here’s to the next 25 years…will I still be here?!

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