Story: Northern Rock Foundation’s distinctive approach
Prior to Northern Rock Foundation’s closure in 2015, we published Being There, focusing on the Foundation’s distinctive approach to grant-making. Many of the practices now being championed through the Open and Trusting grant-making campaign were prominent in the Northern Rock model, including:
Getting the best out of relationships
The Foundation’s interaction with applicants and grantees was based on grant-making principles which were established early on, including:
- Openness and accessibility; clear information on what to apply for
- Assessment through visit and informed discussion
- Realistic funding
- High trust and high expectations
- Mutual honesty
- Light touch administrative requirements
- An interest in the whole organisation and not just the work funded
- Non-financial support to assist development
- The establishment of long-term relationships
Taking a lead and learning from experience
The Foundation was willing to take hard decisions and risks to achieve change, and encouraged others to take risks by both expecting and tolerating failure on occasions, so long as lessons were learned and shared: ‘Trustees are used to risk. They don’t worry if things go wrong. A fundamental principle with grantees is that we are not here to apportion blame’.
We identified key learning points for other trusts and foundations, including:
The Foundation’s practice of ‘focusing on the problem’ and, linked to that, their commitment to ‘managing risk through relationships not systems’ meant that Programme Managers were not constrained by an arbitrary set of rules around, for example, duration of funding or reporting requirements. Differentiated arrangements were put in place according to what seemed most appropriate in relation to the problem being tackled or task being undertaken, with the emphasis on letting organisations set their own objectives, not imposing them.
Other funders might want to consider the possible benefits of being less encumbered by unnecessary and restrictive rules and, linked to this, how they can create the space for more engaged relationships with grantees and a more flexible approach to funding. Approaches which frame relationships primarily within terms of administrative process and “outcomes promised and delivered” may be inherently riskier and less productive than relationships based on knowledge and trust in a progressively more unstable climate.
Keeping a strong core
Although Programme Managers were given a great deal of licence and freedom, their work was shaped and held by a strong sense of the “whole”. This was, in effect, a set of values and principles that became a common lens through which decisions were made. Without this, grant-making can become disparate and incoherent. Such values and principles need to be shaped, shared and understood at all levels and reviewed and renewed as circumstances and people change.
Finally, we were struck by this quote from one of the Programme Managers: ‘We never sought or pretended to be fair’. For the Foundation, the challenge was different: how can judgements about who, what and where to invest in be as grounded, informed and legitimate as possible? That commitment to a deep integrity of grant-making required engagement, relationship-building (recognising the importance of face-to-face contact for both grant holders and grants staff) and patience. For the many trusts and foundations that try to manage the inherent unfairness of grant-making by adopting processes (such as scoring) that have the veneer of fairness, there is an important lesson here.