Last month, Sussex Business Times took to the Brighton Entrepreneurial Spark hub reception to celebrate past, present and the most recent Skills & Opportunity Fund winners from the South East

The NatWest Skills & Opportunities Fund was set up in 2015 to create opportunities for people in disadvantaged communities to gain qualifications, financial capability & entrepreneur skills or start a business. Since then, over £3.9m has been distributed to good causes in England & Wales through the Fund. The Fund has already shared over £3.9m in funding since it launched back in 2015, providing grants of up to £35k to not-for-profit organisations across England and Wales that help people achieve qualifications, find work or start a business.

This year, the Fund is concentrating specifically on supporting organisations with projects encouraging financial capability and entrepreneurialism. The Fund is expected to reach many more people by the end of 2017, helping to build better lives and stronger communities.

Tim Boag, Chair of NatWest’s South East Regional Board, said: “Supporting not-for-profit community organisations is a crucial part of our commitment to making a real, long term difference for disadvantaged communities in the South East. Since we launched the Skills & Opportunities Fund two years ago, the projects we’ve funded across the South East have so far made a positive difference to more than 1,600 disadvantaged and at risk people. This includes supporting 23 new business start-ups, helping 80 people get into employment and another 234 achieve professional qualifications. In addition to the funding we will also look to partner with each winner through mentoring, volunteering and advice.”

The most recent winners of the Fund – both of whom received a check at the Entrepreneurial Spark hub on Preston Road, Brighton last month – were Let’s Do Business Group and Citizens Advice Maidstone.

Let’s Do Business Group (South East) Limited, based in St Leonards-on-Sea, supports the economic development of Hastings and the wider East Sussex area by helping new and budding entrepreneurs. Its Business Builder project has received funding to provide start-up workshops, mentoring support, online training and specialist advice for deprived communities.

Deputy Chief Executive of Let’s Do Business Group, Sean Dennis also commented: “We are absolutely thrilled at receiving this award and would like to thank NatWest for choosing us. As the leading business support organisation in the region, we already have a long and successful track record of helping businesses start, grow and prosper. But this programme really allows us to provide a far greater level and depth of support than we would otherwise be able to, which will enable candidates to develop the skills and knowledge they will need, from experts who have done or are already doing it themselves. We will provide full application details shortly, but if anyone wishes to register their interest in the meantime, all they have to do is get in touch and we’ll take it from there.”

Citizens Advice Maidstone is working with Citizens Advice Tunbridge Wells, who both provide financial capability sessions, as well as free, confidential and impartial advice to residents in a wide range of locations and settings. They have received funding for their project, Make it Count, which will target residents and families living in isolated rural locations within the Boroughs of Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells to improve their financial resilience and capability.

Citizens Advice Maidstone’s Chief Executive Officer, Bonny Malhotra also said: “It is fantastic to receive this funding which will allow Citizens Advice Maidstone to provide essential money management training to residents, helping them avoid falling into debt and manage paying their bills. We know we can make the biggest difference where we empower people to help themselves. Our trainers will enable people to manage budgets effectively and provide one-to-one support to maximise income and increase their understanding of financial opportunities. We will provide sessions to more than 500 residents in the rural areas of both districts.”

Last month’s reception – starting off with a warm welcome and drinks and followed by a networking session for everyone in attendance – saw both organisations receive their well-earned cheques. Also in attendance as one of last year’s winners was Carole Dixon, Chief Executive of the Education Futures Trust, based in Hastings – one of the South East’s most deprived areas.

“The Education Futures Trust is a charity that works to improve the life chances of children, young people and vulnerable adults. The charity was established in 2012 to support the most vulnerable and disadvantaged in Hastings and the surrounding area,” she explained. “The fund allowed us to deliver a bespoke programme for young people aged 14-21 years who are at risk of becoming NEET, or are already NEET. We were able to immerse the young people in nature, and teach them both survival skills (fire lighting, shelter building, knife work, conservation) and how to manage themselves better. The funding enabled these young people to experience success: 42 of the 49 achieved an accredited qualification, 10 went into employment and 97% indicated that their confidence had improved.”

“Nat West advisers brought significant expertise to both the students and our staff, and the students’ self-esteem rose significantly as they were able to teach the visitors their woodland skills. For the young people the experience was life changing; 88% identified future goals and 94% became more connected with nature.”