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Planning in uncertainty

We’ve spent over a year reporting on leadership during the uncertainty of the pandemic, capturing the experiences of voluntary and community leaders to inform and encourage flexible responses from their funders. As we transition to a ‘new normal’, we wonder – how can organisations be agile in the face of an unpredictable future, and could their funders better support them on this journey?


We draw on the experiences of 23 voluntary and community leaders, for whom we facilitated peer support sessions in June and July 2021. They were from organisations funded by the Children, Young People and Families Early Intervention Fund and Adult Learning and Empowering Communities Fund (CYPFEIF & ALEC Fund), administered and coordinated by the Corra Foundation – one of our flexible funders committed to demonstrating more open and trusting practices.


Read on for a summary of how voluntary sector leaders are experiencing and navigating the current political, social and economic context; with ideas and recommendations about what might make a positive difference, including contributions from participants Marguerite Hunter Blair, Chief Executive of Play Scotland, and Eddie McConnell, Chief Executive of Down’s Syndrome Scotland.

Finding a path through complexity

Our second round of meetings of the Community of Practice for 2021 focused on how evaluation and learning staff are approaching the challenge of retaining the collective sense of endeavour that the pandemic has created, as well as consolidating the prominence which learning has achieved during this time – while, at the same time, making sure learning work is doable and sustainable. 

This briefing draws on the contributions of learning and evaluation staff from 13 foundations, and offers our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise. 

We explored: 

1. The data vacuum/avalanche
2. Managing trustee expectations
3. Creating space to learn

Our discussions identified three ways in which learning staff are achieving clarity of purpose and a sense of progress within complexity.

Towards more flexible funding

In February 2021, IVAR issued a call for funders to adopt more open and trusting practices that make life easier for those they fund by adopting eight commitments:

  1. Don’t waste time

  2. Ask relevant questions

  3. Accept risk

  4. Act with urgency

  5. Be open

  6. Enable flexibility

  7. Communicate with purpose

  8. Be proportionate

74 funders have now signed up to becoming open and trusting grantmakers, joining a community of flexible funders.

This briefing shares reflections and ideas for action from the first round of Community of Practice meetings held in April and May 2021. In a safe and facilitated space, 32 foundations came together to share their experiences, challenges, and questions about how best to bring the eight commitments to life in their practice. Our focus at this first meeting was commitment six: enabling flexibility. Funders signed up to enable the organisation they support to respond flexibly to changing priorities and needs by giving unrestricted funding; where they could not (or are a specialist funder), they promised to make their funding as flexible as possible. 

Conversations roamed widely across the opportunities and challenges of becoming more flexible funders, exploring questions of definition; managing funders’ own constraints; working in uncertainty; trust and risk; and thinking about impact.

Birds in a hurricane

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have spoken to over 1,000 voluntary organisations across our portfolio of research. In every conversation, whatever the focus, we have heard about how small charities, social enterprises and community groups have been coping and adapting.


Along the way, we have been capturing snapshots of the live situation through our regular briefing series, drawing specifically from our peer support sessions for voluntary sector leaders. We have been inspired by individuals, holding their teams and organisations together in the toughest of times. And we have reflected on how funders, in particular, could best support their efforts.


This latest briefing, however, draws material from a wider range of projects – most of which began before the pandemic hit. In early 2020, we were facilitating local, cross-sector health partnerships, and looking at how small charities were using technology, not knowing just how vital these already important and interesting fields would become.


We decided to explore how organisations have survived – and in some cases even thrived – since the pandemic began. And we share the things that we believe will help both voluntary organisations, and those who support them, to sustain and develop their contribution for the longer term.


Photo by Fer Nando on Unsplash.

Building a positive legacy together

This sixteenth and final briefing in this series shares the experiences of 26 leaders participating in the last of our online Emergency Response peer support sessions. The report covers our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise. It’s release coincides with the announcement of our new peer support for leaders: Leading in Uncertainty starting in June. 

With the further lifting of Covid-19 restrictions and a clear ‘roadmap’ for future easing, leaders have been in a reflective mood. Conversations have focused on their mixed experiences of life during the pandemic, and the implications for the state of the sector and their role within it. 

Three concerns stand out as front of mind for VCSE leaders: 

  1. The role of leadership moving forward  ‘We can be flexible, we can be creative and we can change.’ 
  2. Long-term planning and the ‘new normal’ –  ‘People expect you to make decisions but you can’t make decisions like you would normally do, due to the level of uncertainty.’
  3. The support of networks and infrastructure bodies – ‘Those that have used our services do value our role more and it has cemented the need for them, but there is no funding that is following this.’

What are we learning about the support VCSE leaders may need? VCSE leaders focused on the need for flexible funding practices and the importance of clear and open communication, with clear messages to funders. 

Two stand-out messages for funders: 

  1. Patience and empathy – Trust and patience remain at the heart of the response needed. Leaders will need time to work out how best to enact their duty of care… There can be no one-size-fits-all route back to stability, and this will need to be uppermost in funders’ minds as they re-set their funding criteria and processes. 
  2. Mutuality –  With the prospect of some kind of recovery and renewal… there will still be a task to do in supporting the frontline, sustaining valued services and creative spaces for people to regroup as the longer-term impact of the pandemic becomes clearer. That will require listening, talking and learning, in order to inform and shape priorities and adaptations to practice…. recognising and respecting the different assets we all have to contribute. 

What next? 

You can read more about how other funders are working towards more open and trusting grant-making, and join our community of practice, at

Share the Leading in Uncertainty dates with VCSE leaders, more details here: 

Read the full series of Covid-19 briefings here.

Show us you trust us

This fifteenth briefing shares the experiences of 34 leaders and senior staff participating in our online peer support sessions between 22nd January and 26th February 2021. The report covers our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise. 

As we approach the anniversary of the first national lockdown, VCSE leaders have been reflecting on the challenges and opportunities that the pandemic has brought, the lessons they have learned, and the implications for new ways of working that blend remote and face-to-face activity. 

Three concerns stand out as front of mind for VCSE leaders: 

  1. Transitioning to the ‘new normal’ ‘We’re at a turning point. The impacts of Covid are quite severe for us at the moment.’ 
  2. Managing emotions –  ‘I think we’re all unaware of how much the last 10 months has affected us personally. And when you’re trying to run an organisation based on relational working and that disappears, that’s really hard.’
  3. Juggling demand, funding and resources – ‘We’re all passionate about the work we do and we’re all aware of the scale of need. At the same time, resources are becoming scarcer and we all want to do more.’

Attendees explored the support that funders could provide through: supportive funding structures; collaborative working; and certainty beyond March. Drawing on our latest conversations, three key messages for funders stand out: 

  1. Trust and patience – These remain at the heart of the response needed from funders, with collaborative approaches to setting priorities and designing processes allowing for funding to be attuned to current unpredictability and uncertainty. 
  2. Learning – As we move into a time of recovery and renewal, it remains a critical time for learning to support the frontline, sustain valued services and create spaces for regrouping as the long-term impact of the pandemic becomes clearer. 
  3. Unrestricted funding – In this context, unrestricted funding is the most useful and important contribution that funders can make to the work of VCSE organisations. 

You can read more about how other funders are working towards more open and trusting grant-making, and join our community of practice, at

Read the full series of Covid-19 briefings here.

Learning in the flow of working

Entering 2021 in lockdown with long uncertainty ahead, it is proving hard to hold onto what has been achieved in 2020. But the experience of the last 12 months has shown how lighter, faster learning, and greater comfort about operating with uncertainty, have been energising for many:

‘The emergency has really pushed learning up the agenda – I’ve been having conversations I’ve never had before’.

This briefing draws on the contributions of 19 learning and evaluation staff from 17 foundations who took part in our Community of Practice, and offers our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise.

Discussions focused on returning learning to the system, in particular the mechanisms that are set up in foundations to enable learning to flow back to the system to enable action, ‘so that it’s not stuck in one head and everybody can benefit’.

We explored: 
1. How well do they support agility and experimentation?
2. Do they value and make good use of different kinds of learning – both formal and informal?
3. What gets in the way of good learning?

We identified seven considerations for a healthy learning system, and three challenges to overcome.

Chasing against time

This fourteenth briefing shares the experiences of 33 charities through online peer support sessions, between 4 December 2020 and 20 January 2021.  


Three things remain front of mind for VCSE leaders:

  1. Sustaining their teams during more uncertainty:A lot of the time we feel like we’re not doing enough, but right now ”good enough” is enough.’
  2. Funding beyond March 2021: ‘The funding system is making it harder for us to plan, yet it wants us to plan. But instinct says I shouldn’t plan too much and need to be flexible.’
  3. Planning for the future beyond the crisis: ‘As an organisation, I’m struggling to imagine what we’ll be doing next year – what’s blended and where should we be. I’ve got settled with this virtual side of stuff – adding the face-to-face back is scary for me.’ 

Our recent discussions reinforce the value that funders can deliver if they:

  1. Provide long-term, unrestricted funding – we repeat this call because VCSE organisations identify it as the single most powerful thing that funders can do to support them.
  2. Adopt simple and flexible practices that accommodate the ongoing unpredictability caused by Covid-19 and respect the intense strain under which everyone is working.
  3. Share the risk. During the emergency many funders have adopted less onerous approaches to due diligence and shown greater trust in VCSE organisations themselves to make the best use of funds. A commitment to sustaining this approach for the foreseeable future powerfully demonstrates empathy with, and support for, the sector.

You can read more about how other funders are working towards more open and trusting grant-making, and join our community of practice, at

Read the full series of Covid-19 briefings here

Steadfast endurance

This thirteenth briefing shares the experiences of 23 leaders participating in online peer support sessions between 11th and 30th November, and our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise.



Three concerns stand out as front of mind for VCSE leaders:

  1. The limitations of online: ‘We’re an organisation that’s based on human relationships, warmth and layers of communication that don’t happen remotely but face-to-face. Everyone has English as a second language, so phone calls are more difficult.’
  2. Sustaining their teams: ‘I’m finding it emotional. We’re not machines.’
  3. Thinking about ‘what next’: ‘At our board away day the focus was deliberately to not think about the here and now, but to focus on the future. Everyone found that very refreshing.’

In terms of support from funders, VCSE leaders’ needs remain much the same. We can highlight three ways to offer meaningful and practical support:

  1. Long-term, unrestricted funding has never been more vital: ‘I’m saying to funders: “the numbers are down but this is what we have done for these particular clients”; and they’ve focused on quality, not numbers.
  2. ‘We are not machines’: ‘You somehow have to prove that you are desperate enough for the money but also that you’re still functioning and you’re not a liability’.
  3. The VCSE sector needs champions: ‘When people lose their jobs, have poor mental health, people will come to us, but we may not be able to support them if we are not supported. The sector is in trouble.’


Read the full series of briefings here

Complicated and messy

This twelfth briefing shares the experiences of 43 leaders participating in online peer support sessions between 15th October and 4th November, and our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise.



Three issues remain at the forefront of leaders’ minds:

  1. Protecting the welfare of their staff and of themselves: ‘Get some time out from the digital and get some thinking time. It’s important to pace yourself so pace doesn’t run you out.’
  2. Remaining mission-focused: ‘We could have folded and decided to all go on furlough, but we decided to stay. We wanted to plant ourselves in the memory of local people that we’ve been there when people needed us. We’re here to do a service. We have the resources to do these services, so we decided to take a bold approach.’
  3. Balancing the need to plan with the imperative to remain highly flexible: ‘Everything is reversible at any moment, so now we don’t put a date on things but expectations are still there.’

In terms of support from funders, VCSE leaders’ needs remain much the same:

  1. Proportionate and relational funding practices: ‘It can take as long to produce a report for a funder who has given £500, as it can for a funder who has given £5,000.’
  2. Longer-term, core funding: ‘Core funding gives us sustainability and the ability to retain good staff.’
  3. Realistic measures of ‘success’: Funders will need to understand that they will ‘receive applications that cost the same but with fewer numbers of people being served.’
  4. Recognise the contribution and diversity of the VCSE sector: ‘Infrastructure is desperately needed to bring attention to, and help to amplify, the voice of the sector.’

Read the full series of briefings here