Ben Cairns

Covid-19: What funders can do this week

Building on experience of previous emergencies

Last week, IVAR and London Funders issued a joint blog on what was learned from the funding response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, and the Manchester Arena bomb. At the heart of this learning – and of the statement of solidarity with the sector signed by so many funders over the last days – is a commitment to trust, flexibility and urgent action; with a premium on being nimble and proportionate.

The challenge now is to put this into practice.

Conversations over the last few days with organisations on the ground, as well as and with individual trusts and foundations, highlight the speed of change and the intense pressure felt by all service delivery charities and especially small organisations working with vulnerable people and communities. From these conversations, as well as IVAR’s past research and the actions already taken by many funders, we suggest five practical ways in which funders can make a real difference – this week – to their own grantees:

  1. Be bold – trust your grantees to know what is needed and to do it. All funders put a lot of effort into assessment and selection. Now is the time to have real confidence in the judgements you made by converting all project or restricted grants into unrestricted funding. Or to restrict them as broadly as is compatible with your own charitable objects – ‘our funding must still be used to benefit children and young people’ or ‘these funds can only be spent on work in Scotland’.
  2. Be generous – organisations are facing immediate additional costs in achieving the difficult balance between responding to need and keeping their volunteers and staff as safe as possible. Appeals are happening and emergency funds are being set up. But, with the best will in the world, it will take some time to raise money and get it out to the people on the ground. And the need – especially for smaller organisations, with few or no reserves – is immediate. Even a relatively small emergency grant, sent this week without being asked for, would be a huge gesture of support. For smaller organisations it would be a lifeline, helping to bridge the gap until formal emergency funds start to flow.
  3. Be genuinely flexible – if you can’t convert to unrestricted grants, don’t ask grantees to call for permission to redirect funding or shift priorities within their current grant. Tell them, in writing, that they can move funds between budget headings as they need to and tell the story of what they have done when this is all over. Many of them have multiple funders, all keen to help. But it’s their clients, communities, volunteers and staff that need their attention right now. Deeper conversations about ‘what next’ can come later.
  4. Be available – if you absolutely have to speak to grantees, or they need to contact you, make sure that they can get straight through to someone who knows about their grant and has sufficient authority to act. Managers, especially in small organisations, are fighting fires on all fronts at the moment. Any contact with funders needs to be supportive, well-informed and efficient.
  5. Be reassuring – most funders have already told their grantees that instalments will be paid without reports, for now. But tackling Covid-19 is calling for social and economic interventions across the world that were unthinkable three months ago and that will persist for many months. Realistically none of us – grantees or funders – can be held accountable for achieving outcomes that we agreed before the virus hit. Tell your grantees now that you know this and will take full account of it in your reporting requirements. More practical ideas will follow shortly from the joint Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and IVAR project on better reporting.

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