Ben Cairns

“From subordination to reciprocation”

To coincide with Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales’ launch of Five years of Funder Plus, we are posting the text of Ben Cairns’ opening remarks at the September 2011 launch of ‘Beyond Money: Funding Plus in the UK’.


We think the publication of Beyond money is timely.  Although the practice of ‘going beyond the money’ is not new, a combination of factors means that the spotlight on funding plus is currently shining bright. Cuts in public expenditure, the changing role of the state, governmental interest in philanthropy and giving, and shifts to demand-led models of support for voluntary organisations – these are all influencing and shaping the priorities of trusts and foundations, as well as their voluntary sector grantees.

The delivery of funding plus 

Let me start with the delivery of funding plus.  For colleagues here today who are familiar with IVAR’s work, please don’t be alarmed.  We haven’t forgotten the mantra Form follows Function.  There is, though, much in the report about the various purposes behind funding plus.  If it is articulated at all, purpose is dynamic and may be subject to debate and disagreement. It is shaped by history, roots, values, peer pressure, grantees and public policy. Our findings suggest that funders might need to develop a greater degree of care, consciousness and transparency about their motives and interests. However, I want to move on from the question of Why, in order to consider How.

Our conclusion about the delivery of funding plus, itself a quote from one of our interviewees, is this: ‘how you do it matters’. And we can identify five over-arching factors which may be viewed as essential pre-conditions for the success of funding plus activity, regardless of its purpose.

First, we can point to the importance of funders having good knowledge of the issues which are the focus of their funding plus work.

Second, solid and consistent relationships need to be established and maintained between grantee organisations and funders.  We found that more effective relationships were characterised by a high degree of emotional intelligence on both sides.  Behaviour that was perceived as over-bearing on the part of the funder led, unsurprisingly, to a perceived weakening in the strength of relationship between the funder and grantee.

Third, we can highlight the importance of coherence in funding plus work. Our earlier work on capacity-building has confirmed that a mismatch between means and ends severely restricts the potential for achieving change. The most effective way of achieving a connection between purpose, design and delivery across the full range of funding plus activities – both capacity building and influencing – is to ensure a high degree of collaboration at all stages, from preparation right through to evaluation.

Fourth – in addition to knowledge, relationships and coherence – is the issue of the readiness and willingness of participating organisations (that is, grantees) to be involved in funding plus. In part, this relates to suitability for engagement. Trusts and foundations may need to consider whether funding plus should be targeted at those organisations that not only feel that they have a clear need for support (either capacity-building or work around influencing), but also have the resources (the time, energy and people) to participate. The risks of the so-called spray and pray approach were highlighted in our 2008 evaluation of the City Bridge Trust’s pilot grants plus programme (a piece of work commissioned by Sara Llewellin and very much an antecedent of the research we are talking about today).  As one reluctant recipient of capacity building support explained, ‘we never knew what it meant and what would happen’.

Finally, assuming a targeted and integrated approach to preparation, our study confirms that the potential for securing real benefits from funding plus depend upon a further element of the process: the focus and method of the funding plus intervention itself. Those organisations in our study which received capacity-building support that was attuned and relevant to their own concerns and circumstances pronounced themselves very satisfied. However, we also found examples of interventions which were regarded as less helpful on account of being directive, interfering or burdensome. The key message here is the value of bespoke support.

Particular issues can arise where the funding plus work is about influence. If a funder intends to play an active part in pursuit of a cause which is also being pursued by those it funds, it needs to take great care in how it communicates this intention. Funders involved in work to influence government policy, for example, may be perceived as moving beyond grant making into territory which frontline organisations see as their own. They may also risk being viewed as overly preoccupied with their own profile in the funding plus work, possibly at the expense of their own grantees. Such a scenario, in which, rather than the role of funders being to meet the needs of grantees, the roles work the other way around, risks having a damaging effect on relationships.

The success of funding plus

What, then, about success?  How do you know it’s worth it, or worthwhile, or of worth, rather than just being worthy? A number of our interviewees struggled to describe, or provide evidence of, the difference made by their funding plus activity. One possible explanation for the relative lack of data in this regard may be the absence of much prior thought by funders about what they want to achieve, what change they want to see and therefore what success would look like.

In the context of funding plus work which is principally about achieving change in policy and/or practice, we did find examples of funders having an explicit theory of change which could enable them to have a benchmark against which to make an assessment of progress and success. For these funders, evaluation was understood as being concerned with learning, as well as performance and reporting. Such reflective practice has the potential to benefit both the funder, through the generation of learning about its strategy and behaviour as a funding plus grant-maker, as well as the grantee, through the generation of learning about its own practice. Such funders appear more open to a degree of risk-taking in their funding plus work, comfortable with the fact that outcomes may forever remain intangible and largely hidden from view.

Generally, though, systematic approaches to thinking about, planning and implementing systems to capture evidence of change in funded organisations were uncommon. How far this matters is questionable. The requirements and restrictions placed around the accountability for public funding do not transfer automatically across to charitable investment. There is a license to operate and act independently and, if appropriate, place low demands and expectations around outcomes and impact.

This attitude, however, may not be sustainable in a context of external economic pressures, and policy demands, in relation to the coalition government’s interest in independent grantmaking. The pressure to capture and demonstrate the difference achieved by work carried out by trusts and foundations generally – and through funding plus specifically – may, therefore, increase. However, in responding to this pressure, we should perhaps be mindful of the fact that effectiveness is complex multidimensional.  All stakeholders will have view on how best to define it; some will be more credible than others; and some will be more influential than others. This is not something that can be dealt with by a simple, single metric.

Assets, responsibility and power

I want to finish by talking about assets, responsibility and power. Today’s audience will not need reminding that trusts and foundations have significant and extensive assets, many of which play some kind of role in funding plus. In addition to money, these assets include: buildings; knowledge and skills; contacts; high profile brands; leverage and convening power; and legitimacy. Each of these, at different times and in different ways, has the potential to be useful to grantees.

In the current economic and policy context – one in which many of the grantees of the trusts and foundations covered by this study will struggle to survive – it can be argued that funders have an enhanced responsibility to use these assets to the maximum effect. That does not mean, necessarily, that all funders should be active in funding plus.  Indeed, there may be a need to think carefully about resisting the zeitgeist ­– funding plus, social investment, fewer bigger grants ­–  in favour of apparently old-fashioned grants. However, it would seem reasonable to expect all funders to engage in debate and discussion about the use of their assets as part of a wider consideration of what Richard Hopgood at Henry Smith’s describes as ‘responsible funding’.

Such a debate will, in part, need to be framed by an acknowledgement of the significance of power. It’s now 23 years since I first applied to a trust for a grant: £5,000 for play equipment from the Trust for London.  Since then I have lost count of the number of applications and submissions and requests and, dare I say it, hoops that I have had to jump through. And, although I am just doing what is expected of me – applying for a grant to people who give out grants – I can still be left feeling as if I am somehow doing something slightly inappropriate; as if I were removing my swimming costume on a beach clearly labelled ‘No Nudists’.  Why might this be?

Whatever funders and grant-seekers – whether successful or unsuccessful – do together, it is in the context of the inescapable fact that this is, at root, a relationship based around money, in which there is an inbuilt imbalance of power between the two parties. The positive experiences of many of our interviewees suggest that the potentially negative influence of the power differential can be offset if both parties are aware of this from the outset, and if the more powerful party – the funder – does whatever it can to mitigate the worst effects of the imbalance. Strategies for mitigation might include the application of some of the learning highlighted in our report:

  • collaboration at all stages of the funding plus process
  • increased consciousness about respective roles and interests
  • emotional intelligence and investment in the development of relationships.

The devil, as ever, is in the detail, even the small print.  And we should not forget the significance of language and meaning.  I recall Christopher Graves gently reminding me that the Tudor Trust does not ‘award’ grants: too paternalistic.  More recently, John Kingston, Chair of ACF, has spoken about the importance of funders thinking of themselves as stewards, rather than benefactors.  Above all, I think our study highlights the need for an explicit recognition that the power relationship is asymmetrical, and for creative endeavour, whereby, through the combination of a funder’s investment and an organisation’s activities, the two parties involved create a kind of exchange. In this way, we might begin to move from subordination to reciprocity.

Where Next?

In thinking about the further development of this field, our study also suggests that the following areas would benefit from attention:

More investment of time and energy within funders, and in some cases external support, to prepare for funding plus, paying particular attention to function – what is the purpose of moving beyond the money to the provision of ancillary activities? And form – what process and methods need to be employed in order to fulfil that purpose?

More preparation at the outset of funding plus initiatives in order to develop a theory of change, with a focus on processes and outcomes that are appropriate, meaningful and useful to both funders and grantees. To support this, consideration might be given to a longer term study to assess the difference and contribution, over time, that collaboratively agreed and designed funding plus interventions make, for example to social change.

Linked to the need for more work around benefits, further work could be undertaken to look at the costs and opportunity costs of funding plus. This information would be particularly useful for funders considering embarking on funding plus and those wishing to develop their funding plus activities further.

Finally, related to work on costs, gaps remain in our knowledge about funding plus interventions. In particular, the study was not able to identify the relative effectiveness of different interventions, or the variables which influence and determine that effectiveness. Whilst our earlier work in this area did generate useful evidence about organisational support work, there may be a need to look more closely at activities and methods involved in influencing work.

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