When he worked in business, Steve Adams had one ambition.
“I used to say I wanted to get to the stage where I could just do nothing but pick up the money and drink coffee all day,” he recalls.
Eventually, business became so good that he was able to just do that, but then found that a life of leisure wasn’t all it was cracked up to be.
“I just got very bored,” he says.
Steve is now chief executive of the Community Foundation charity in Staffordshire and Shropshire, and says he gets a far bigger buzz out of giving money to others than he ever did out of making it for himself.
Founded in 2001, the Community Foundation was set up as a "middle man" between philanthropists and the often unsung voluntary organisations which struggle to find the funding to carry out their crucial work.
Last year, the foundation distributed more than £3.34 million to 2,355 charities and voluntary organisations across the two counties, one of the biggest years in its history.
Despite this, there are many people who are not even aware that the charity exists.
“In many ways, we’re the area’s best kept secret,” says Steve, who joined the foundation in 2008, initially as a volunteer.
He says that while the foundation will consider any funding applications from charitable organisations in the two counties, priority tends to be given to smaller charities which would find it hard to access funds from other sources.
“We tend to focus more on the grassroots groups,” he says. “A lot of the smaller organisations miss out because they do not have somebody working full-time who can spend a day putting together a bid or writing a report.”
While the foundation offers grants ranging from £75 to £50,000, the typical grant is usually about £2,000 to £3,000, and Steve says he is often impressed by how much difference a relatively small amount of money can make.
He highlights a project by the Wat Mahathat Buddhist temple in Kings Bromley, Staffordshire, which has spent the pandemic distributing food supplies to people who might otherwise have difficulty getting out the house.
“Although it is a Buddhist charity, it is not just for Buddhists, it helps everybody,” he says. “To begin with it, it only covered a small area, but it started growing and now it covers the whole of the county.”
He says the pandemic led to a significant increase in demand for its support, and the foundation was more than happy to step in, taking on extra staff to handle the increased number of cases.
He says it is the lockdown, rather than the pandemic itself, which has led to this increased demand.
He cites the case of a cerebral support group in Stafford, which had to shut down immediately as soon as the restrictions were announced.
The group received £5,000 in June last year, which it used to increase its hours and purchase four computer tablets to help isolated members keep in touch.
“All face-to-face support services stopped overnight, leaving many people very isolated,” says Steve.
“They only way they could reach some people was by helping them with IT, training them in how to access services online, or purchasing tablets to keep them connected.”
Cannock’s Achieving Goalz and Dreams, which runs children’s programmes to improve self-esteem, helps families with healthier lifestyles and works with children suffering mental health problems, received £9,190 in May last year.
In Shropshire, Connect Aid received £4,000 in April 2020. The not-for-profit company runs a Telford ‘food share project’, which collects and distributes food to those who are unable to go out shopping themselves, or who suffer from isolation. The money also helped with the purchase of refrigerators and freezers to store the food.
While the foundation has always taken pride in being able to process grant applications quickly – usually within 28 days – Steve says the pandemic brought with it a greater sense of urgency.
“We soon realised with things moving so fast, and the situation changing so rapidly, that it was no good if people had to wait 28 days, so instead we were turning round applications in about two days.”
Steve – who is himself a donor to the fund – says the people who give money to the foundation come in all shapes and sizes.
“We have got a pretty fair spread,” he says. “We have got some high-net-worth donors, and a small number of ultra-high-net-worth people.”
But he adds that probably the majority of support comes from small and medium-sized businesses, and people who want to give something back to their community but don’t know how to go about it.
“We are, in a way, a philanthropic management service,” he says. “People think it’s very easy to give money away, and in one sense it is. But if you want to make sure it is doing what you want it to do, it can be a long procedure.
“A national company may have its own corporate social responsibility staff, but the smaller companies won’t have that.”
Steve says the foundation tries to match donors with charities that reflect what they wish to achieve.
“We will ask the donors about their interests, and try to do something according to that. For example, if they had a link to Cannock Chase, we might look to be doing something in that area.”
He says supporting good causes also makes good business sense for companies, as it is good for them to be seen to be putting something back into the community.
“Many people, once they have seen how their donation can make a difference, go on to give more,” says Steve.
His work for the foundation has opened his eyes to the work that many voluntary organisations do, often with very limited resources.
He says it has also made him more aware of the very real problems that many people face.
“We all see newspaper reports and things on the internet, talking about particular sections of society,” he says.
“But I can now see how easy it is for huge numbers of people to get into financial difficulty. If someone has got a job, but is not on a particularly high income, and their washing machine breaks, the only way they can get another one is on what used to be called hire purchase. That will take five years to pay for, and then if their cooker breaks as well, they will have no choice but to go back to the same place and buy one from there.”
He says he is also more aware of the isolation people, particularly the elderly, can experience in rural communities.
“Village life is great if you have chosen to move to an area and you have got a car, but you might have Mrs Jones who has lived there all her life, never learned to drive and then the local shop closes and she isn’t able to drive three miles to the supermarket.”
Steve, who is 42, says he finds his work for the charity more rewarding than anything he ever did in business.
“It is not about success in your career, or about the money, it is about making a difference,” he says.
“And when it comes to finish time, and that can be 11 or 12 o’clock at night, there are very few days when I can’t say that what I have done has made a difference.”