Martin Lewis: My Coronavirus Fund – £3.4m donated to 415 charities – how we selected, who got it, and some thanks

Martin Lewis: My Coronavirus Fund – £3.4m donated to 415 charities – how we selected, who got it, and some thanks

We've just agreed the final payments for my Coronavirus Poverty Emergency Fund. The total distributed is £3,414,143 to 415 small local charities (or organisations with charitable status). That's an average of over £8,000 per charity. For transparency, I want to run through how we organised, selected the charities, and where the money has gone. I hope this may also help others planning similar things in future.

The charities who received donations include food banks, charities engaged in community aid, financial advice help and more. For the sake of speed, the priority was projects that were already up and running, or in the process of being set up.

I've left it up to charities to decide if they want to publish the donations. Many have done on social media using #MartinLewisCoronafund, so I won't list them here.

My three aims for the poverty fund

When I originally planned, then announced my Coronavirus Poverty Fund, I had a threefold aim:

  1. To get help to where it was needed at speed. This, of course, was the paramount goal. I'd already started organising the fund before the official national charity drive launched. That's not really surprising, as due to my work, I get huge, direct, immediate feedback on the way the wind's blowing, and so could smell the financial panic and poverty hitting across the country. There was a one-week window for applications, and the first payments were made four days after that.

  2. To support charities themselves. I'm already involved with a wide range of charities, so it was obvious many small charities would face an existential crisis – with access to funding severed. That's why I imposed a cap on both the size of the organisation and the grant itself. This meant we could spider the money out to keep as many crucial local organisations running as possible.

  3. To make a public statement to encourage other high net worths to give. I'd ummed and ahhed about whether this was appropriate, but went for it, and included this call in my initial announcement, with an offer to provide the admin to help.

    At first, I said I'd put £1 million in, then £1.1 million came in from a range of brilliant donors, both individuals and corporates. So, in my somewhat obsessive way, I decided to make it a nice round number and add another £900,000.

    This round-number plan was, wonderfully, thwarted by another £420,000 coming in. In total, there's £1,320,000 that's come in from other sources. I've donated £1.9 million, which the mathematicians among you may realise leaves a shortfall of around £200,000. We're awaiting confirmation on another £100,000 donation, and I am covering any gaps.

    Many of the other donors were impressed by the admin process we'd set up to shortlist and process applications, and get money out at speed. That however isn't down to me – all my time during this crisis has been spent delivering help information, which I felt was where I could add the most value. So I knew I needed a serious admin structure to organise this, and to do that, I hastily recruited a team.

    It was led by Archna Luthra, who in the past worked with me for 10 years at MoneySavingExpert.com, so is someone I know and trust, and has similar values (she was effectively the proxy for me in running the project), and charity consultant Jonathan Cook. Between them, they put the system together.

We received nearly 7,000 applications in just one week

After my initial blog and the coverage it got, I was blown away at receiving nearly 7,000 applications in seven days, requesting £74 million.

Sadly though, even after I'd increased my donation, and others had put in too, that left us only being able to fund about 5% of the applications received. Simply picking who to give the money to was a Herculean and intimidating task.

So I'm so grateful to the brilliant cast of 20 volunteer assessors – most of whom had substantial third sector experience themselves – that shouldered this responsibility. They worked with Archna and Jonathan, and freely and movingly, gave weeks of time to heavily filter applications.

Of course, it is with regret that we couldn't fund most of the applications we received. I want to make it very plain though, to those who didn't get money (who should all now have received my apology – and details of other places to apply for funding. If you haven't, do check your spam folder) that doesn't mean your organisation isn't worthy.

While we don't have the resources to give individual feedback, here's our criteria, which may help...

  • To help with the direct and immediate relief of poverty to people affected by coronavirus.
  • To fund projects that could provide relief quickly and had the processes in place to do that.
  • To prioritise provision and delivery of food, medicine, sanitary products and emergency hardship grants.
  • That only 15% of the money could go towards central costs, the rest ideally was to go directly to poverty relief.
  • To fund a diverse group of small charities.

With such scarce resources, it meant we couldn't fund hugely important issues such as mental health, even though that's a passion of mine (indeed I'm the founder and chair of the Money and Mental Health Policy Institute), or community cohesion.

Even then, far more organisations than we can fund passed through the first round. So afterwards, my brief was to consider the diversity of awards, to ensure we had a good geographical and, where possible, demographically-representative spread – and give priority to projects in the most deprived areas of the UK according to the Office for National Statistics' UK Index of Multiple Deprivation.

Where the money went

The charities were hugely diverse. It's interesting which type of organisations had the set-up to deliver at speed. They included the obvious and most-needed – food banks, domestic abuse charities, cancer groups and more.

Yet equally many small, local organisations had quickly stepped up too – charity groups organised by churches, synagogues, mosques, temples and other religious groups or community centres, both locally and for specific users, such an refugees or Somalis or industry help charities like ABTA Lifeline.

*86% of applications came from, and 87% of the funds went to, the 5% of most-deprived areas in the UK.
*95% of grants given were to be used fully or partially on providing food to those in need.
*60% of the charities awarded had an income of less than £250,000 per year.

Below is the percentage of funds awarded by UK regions, which is a balance between population, deprivation and applications:

East Midlands 5.65%
East of England 2.92%
London 12.56%
Northern Ireland 9.55%
North East 2.39%
North West 10.71%
Scotland 17.90%
South East 8.40%
South West 4.85%
Wales 6.43%
West Midlands 6.65%
Yorkshire 11.99%

I hope that gives an overview of what we've done. There is a bottomless pit of need at the moment. There may be more money in the future, but I want to wait and see how things develop.

The thank yous

I'm very grateful to Archna and Jonathan, and their brilliant team of highly-qualified volunteers, who all met via Zoom from across the country and painstakingly went through all the applications – they are Alexa, Amanda, Bryony, Diane, Elizabeth, Elly, Francis, Helen, Jane, Katie, Kelly, Liz, Lou, Louise, Lucy, Margret, Maxine, Morag, Neil, Nicki, Pat, Patrick, Stuart and Tom.

Thanks to another former MSEer, Adam Cable, for his tech and database building skills; and to my PA Bernadette for helping with the admin when needed.

Huge plaudits too to the Charities Aid Foundation, which is where I keep my charity fund. It was never set up to do the due diligence needed at this sort of scale and to make this number of small payments at speed. Yet when I asked it, there was no quibbling. It saw the need, took up the challenge and has been brilliant. Thanks to all the staff there, specifically Anna, Dan, Keeli, Ludmila and the whole compliance team.

Thanks to all of them, and sorry to anyone I've forgotten. And my gratitude to all those who spread the word about the fund to charities, so we could get the applications in; and also to the charities, who are the real heroes in this tale – the people out there giving food and support, and caring for all those in need at the moment. I'm very much looking forward to getting the reports back on how effectively the funds were used.