A virtual outreach initiative which has helped dozens of women across the North East get new jobs during the pandemic is set to carry on thanks to a four-figure grant from the region’s biggest building society.

Smart Works Newcastle aims to help women get back into work, gain financial independence and transform their lives by providing free interview clothing and coaching which gives them the confidence they need to succeed.

When it had to suspend the face-to-face sessions that it usually runs through its city centre office last spring, it quickly developed a virtual service in its place, with coaching being offered either by telephone or over Zoom and interview outfits being sent out in the post.

Having been able to help more 120 women over the last year across a growing number of North East communities, Smart Works had been looking at how it could sustain the virtual service alongside its regular personal appointments, which are set to recommence this month.

And now, thanks to a £2,688 grant from Newcastle Building Society, it has been able to commit to retaining the service and to further extending its reach into County Durham and Northumberland.

The funding is being provided through the Newcastle Building Society Community Fund at the Community Foundation, which offers grants to charities and community groups located in or around the communities served by the Society’s branch network.

In the first part of 2021, the Society is directing its support to a range of employability and food poverty projects, helping communities manage and recover from the impact of Covid-19.

Smart Works Newcastle has helped over 400 women around the region since its launch three years ago, with around two-thirds of them going on to succeed at a job interview within a month of receiving the charity’s support.

It is currently looking to recruit more volunteers to help meet the growing demand for its services, with training that has been funded by the Newcastle Building Society grant being provided to help them develop and enhance the digital and personal skills they need to support its work.

Nathalie Bouleau Chabot, business development lead at Smart Works Newcastle, says: “While our face-to-face service works really well, it can sometimes be difficult for women who live in rural communities, or who have work or childcare commitments to get all the way into Newcastle for their appointments.

“Making the service available online has allowed us to get around these barriers and to support people living across communities that we’d not previously been able to reach.

“The positive impact on our virtual service users has been clear to see right through the year, and with the economy beginning to open up, we know there’s going to be even greater demand for our help in the coming months.

“Without Newcastle Building Society’s support, we wouldn’t have been able to cover the costs of making this a permanent part of the Smart Works service and we want to use it as a platform to keep developing what we offer to even more women around the North East.”

Pauline Baldwin, manager at Newcastle Building Society’s flagship Northumberland Street branch, adds: “Smart Works Newcastle does a brilliant job in giving dozens of local women the chance to get back into the workplace, realise more of their potential and improve their and their families’ lives.

“The creativity and determination the team has shown to keep providing this important service during the most difficult of times is extremely impressive, and their positive impact in communities right across the region makes them more than deserving of our support.”

Since its launch in 2016, Newcastle Building Society’s Community Fund has also contributed over £2.1m in grants and partnerships to a wide variety of charities and projects across the region, including the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation and the Prince’s Trust. The grants are so far estimated to have had a positive impact on more than 151,000 people.

In response to the coronavirus outbreak, the Society also made a £100,000 contribution to the Coronavirus Response and Recovery Fund set up by the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.

The Newcastle Building Society Community Fund is run in association with the Community Foundation Tyne & Wear and Northumberland.