Funders’ short-term focus on Covid-19 is creating a problem

POP+ has just run a survey of how charities, social enterprises and grassroots groups have been affected by Covid-19. I think, whilst quite unhelpful to anyone wanting an easy answer, the main message is that it’s not simple and it’s not a coherent picture. The sector is massively diverse. Our survey concentrated on organisations below £500k/yr turnover and even within this group we have stories and data that suggest that whilst some organisations under £10k/yr turnover are really vulnerable, others are totally fine. Similarly, we’re not seeing a huge impact on larger organisations – but unless things change, we’re anticipating a future problem caused by the complexity in the funding landscape and the short-term focus on Covid-19. Rather than just repeat the recommendations in our survey which can be found here, I’m going to bring in a few more influences:

  • Our own experience of being core funded by Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and not having to worry about being on the hamster wheel of funding bid writing and pipelines.
  • The Human Learning System This has come from research carried out by Collaborate CIC and Newcastle Business School that acknowledges we may not have quite the right view of the world when planning services and funding social impact. It highlights: the importance of relationships and the variety that is inherent in people giving and receiving support; the need to use learning to drive performance (and that I would argue is a social process); the importance of context, which is complex in nature, and the fallacy of control. For me, complexity and context loop back to relationships because it’s only through relationships that you can sense and respond to what is working and what is not.
  • A growing body of thought around how funders could be responding differently from the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation insights on core funding, to IVAR’s research on funder responses to emergencies, to LankellyChase Foundation’s identification of core behaviours that help systems function better for people facing severe and multiple disadvantage.

What I would reflect on from all of this, is the following:

  • Core funding is a no-brainer. It vastly reduces wasted time across the whole sector trying to ‘shoe-horn’ existing practice into new funding constraints and frees up funder time to spend on building relationships. This one act, which is basically what the London Funder’s Covid-19 statement does, would say ‘we trust you’ and re-orientate from a process that incentivises well-worded paragraphs that we think you want to hear (not necessarily what we think is true) and telling you that we did exactly what we said we would (rather than what we thought might be better) to a focus on relationship building, listening and learning.

But it creates a problem. It raises issues of assurance and questions like ‘can we really trust you?’ and we really want to see our change in the world because we need to prioritise how we allocate our money’.

However, given that we know core funding can free up so much benefit and therefore increase the impact for the very people we seek to help, how can we possibly allow this barrier to get in the way?

We need to explore and experiment with different ways to provide assurance. This starts with asking:

  1. Do we know we’re doing the right thing?
  2. Yes, if we’re making good decisions.
  3. Good decisions require, what?

If we can start to answer this, then perhaps funders could be assured through different means? Alongside core funding, my sense is that this might include:

  • Mainly/only(?!) funding collaborations and networks – groups of people that are not part of the same organisation can be made far more accountable to one another. It also ensures beneficiary groups benefit from far more joined up delivery.
  • Demonstrating wide and true participation from core stakeholders – for POP+ this is our membership, for others it might be beneficiaries.
  • Engagement in peer learning that spans geographies to create an ability for true challenge as well as increased opportunity to learn.

I think all of this would naturally lead to funders collaborating more. The only question left will be ’so when would we stop funding an organisation/collaboration/network?’

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