Despite what they say, a winning way

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The Independent Online
Giving money away is not nearly as easy at it sounds. The National Lottery Charities Board has done well in winning the approval of the previously critical National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and Labour's new National Heritage shadow, Jack Cunningham, for the distribution of its first pounds 40m yesterday.

The favourable response comes partly in outraged reaction to the attacks, in the Mail, Sun and Express, on some of the smaller grants going to Somali and Eritrean refugees and drug abuse charities. "I was appalled by the tone of those stories," said Dr Cunningham, praising the way in which money had been given to small local groups, and had been fairly distributed around the regions, despite his wish to review the whole machinery of the lottery.

Fifteen thousand groups applied for grants - four times more applicants than all the other lottery boards together. The complex task of sifting through such varied applications fell to 400 assessors around the country. The board always said it would target small local projects. From the start, it has been criticised for refusing to take politically easy options. It chose poverty for its first grants, a less popular option, although it was the one selected by the majority of the 7,000 charities consulted, because the public give less generously to the poor.

It would have been easy for the board to choose the big charities, where it would know the money was "safe", and the brand name uncontroversial. No doubt some money to small organisations risks going astray. Unpopular groups, especially black refugees, were bound to be vilified by the right- wing press.

As the last to give grants, the board had the advantage of knowing some pitfalls to avoid in advance. For example, it has divided the money evenly around Britain. It has divided it fairly among sectors of the population, 25 per cent to children, 17 per cent to the disabled, the rest to pensioners, families and mental disability. It gave just enough to big-name charities to stop them complaining that they had been excluded. Despite expecting renewed accusations of "political correctness", the board said it would stick by the same criteria with its next grants.

Polly Toynbee