Lauri McCusker, Fermanagh Trust

Community Leadership in the West

The Fermanagh Trust is a community foundation that awards grants to support local groups and community initiatives across County Fermanagh in Northern Ireland.

Director Lauri McCusker speaks to Knowledge and Learning Manager Zoë Anderson about charity sector leadership and the need to invest in people.

Finding the next generation

Lauri McCusker Fermanagh Trust
Lauri McCusker, Fermanagh Trust

Succession planning is a major challenge for charities and community groups in Northern Ireland. Working with two other organisations, the Holywell Trust and the Rural Community Network, the Fermanagh Trust are delivering Community Leadership in the West, a five-year, £500,000 National Lottery-funded programme supporting the next generation of voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) leaders.

The river Bann is often seen as a dividing line between the eastern and western areas of Northern Ireland. West of the Bann, in the region covered by the new programme, the average age of the population is around 38 – but the average age of charity committee members is 53. In a survey of 120 local organisations, the Fermanagh Trust found that nearly 50% of committee members had been there for more than six years, while young people were largely underrepresented.

Lauri’s own first role in the sector, in his early 20s, was as treasurer of St Michael’s Golden Age group, a club for older people. “My mum asked me to get involved! After about a year, it became very clear that the people on the committee were struggling – because the group had had its time. People had moved on. Many of the members were no longer able to come along, whether they’d passed on or they were too frail.” Both membership and morale were falling. “The ability to self-generate and build again had gone.”

Fast forward to 2020 and the pandemic highlighted the enduring issue of overreliance on a small and ageing cohort of leaders. “In the last 21 months, people have moved on with their lives. People have got older, some people are no longer with us,” Lauri says. “We’re going to see organisations having to look at alternative approaches to make sure they can deliver services, because sadly some people are no longer there.”

Without that new wave of people, who are willing to put their hands up, and also develop the skills to make a difference – without that, then the world will be less bright
Lauri McCusker, Fermanagh Trust

Space and support

Oisin McGrath Foundation administered by Fermanagh Trust
The Oisin McGrath Foundation, a grant administered by the Fermanagh Trust

In some situations, long standing staff or volunteers may not find it easy to make space for the next generation. “Sometimes people can be gatekeepers,” says Lauri, “not purposefully in many cases; current leaders may be afraid to step away from what they’ve built, seeing nobody to hand on to.”

On top of this, the fear of bureaucracy and level of responsibility can be disincentives to younger people. “The level of governance, of scrutiny, or risk appears to have increased,” explains Lauri. “For some people that’s just too much.”

“Is it any surprise that people don’t want to put their hand up?” he asks. “Say for example your child is the age to go to the local playgroup. You’re not used to meetings. Then you’re asked, will you go on the committee? There could be up to 20 different things you’re asked to look after, such as here’s our risk assessment. Social services oversee us, as a committee member you’re responsible. This is our staff team, you’ll be the employer. By the way, you’re also going to have to be up with the Charity Commission too, you’re going to be a legal guardian of this charity. Think about what we’re asking people to do!”

The loss of training schemes and support for a new generation is a further challenge. Many current community leaders trained on the Action for Community Employment (ACE) scheme, which ended in 1999. Traditional community education providers like the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) and Ulster Peoples College no longer exist. Without a consistent education programme offering training and practical experience, it’s harder to see community work as a career path.

The sector also struggles with job insecurity. Projects are often short-term – which means staff need to keep looking for their next job. As a result, many potential leaders have left the charity sector to take up roles with employers that can offer permanent or long-term contracts, as well as better terms and conditions.

Investing in future leaders

Lauri McCusker Fermanagh and Omagh Council's Poverty Conference
Lauri McCusker at Fermanagh and Omagh Council's Poverty Conference

“Without that new wave of people, who are willing to put their hands up, and also develop the skills to make a difference – without that, then the world will be less bright,” says Lauri. “That’s where we came at the Investing in Community Leadership in the West scheme.” He explains that they are, “Looking to reinvest in leadership, reinvest in people.”

The new programme offers 25 short training courses in essentials, such as facilitation, mediation, governance, and compliance - the core building blocks to good practice. Lauri aims to show that “the challenges aren’t that bad if you can get over the perceived hurdles of bureaucracy and red tape.”

The Future Leaders programme will develop non-politically aligned community leaders to promote positive relationships in Derry/Londonderry and beyond. Another work strand will support young people to become grantmakers, influencing change and investment where they live. And a new Pre-Graduate Diploma in Community Development Practice, accredited by the National University of Ireland, Galway, is aimed at people already working or volunteering in the sector, using a mix of participants’ own experiences, practical exercises, and coursework. As a whole, the programme looks to develop both careers and communities - setting people up to lead.

For Lauri, the speedy responses of the pandemic showed “the importance of the local”, with many community groups taking action before lockdown was announced. The sector mobilised “very, very quickly – like no one else, like no other sector, to help people who were most afraid, and to do it in a way that showed the importance of people.”

For Lauri, “the importance of investing in people” is the key learning. “The reality is, the vast majority of people in community voluntary organisations want to make a difference in their community, they can do that – let's redouble our efforts to support them.”

Find out more about the work of The Fermanagh Trust, or follow them on Facebook or Twitter.

Pictured, top: Gerard Deane of Holywell Trust, Kate Clifford of Rural Community Network, and Lauri McCusker

Lauri McCusker spoke to Zoë Anderson on 3 June 2021. This page was last updated: 26 January 2022.