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Sharing power in grant-making

How do we shift the power in grant-making to communities? By making steps to share it.

Discover how Comic Relief approached the dynamics of power in the first phase of their intermediary funding programme: Shift the Power. These resources are aimed at funders, in particular intermediary funders and national/local funders working with intermediaries, who are considering questions of power in grant-making: who has it, and how it can be shared.

More information: 

Shift the Power is an intermediary funding programme run by Comic Relief. It aims to shift the power in grant-making to communities and get more funding to small grassroots organisations and communities across the UK, and to trial a trust-based and ‘relational’ approach to devolved grant-making.

Comic Relief partnered with four intermediary funders; Community Foundation for Northern Ireland (CFNI), Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action (WCVA), and Groundwork UK in England, who acted as the intermediaries between Comic Relief and local communities.

The report paper Sharing power in grant-making reflects on the collective learning of Comic Relief and the funders during the first phase of the programme, drawing on the insights collected by IVAR as a Learning Partner, working alongside Comic Relief and the intermediary funders

We have also included case studies from the four intermediary funders in the paper Sharing power with intermediary funders to delve into the approaches and learning for each funder. 

Image credits: We are thankful to the intermediary funders and their grantees for giving us permissions to use their logos and imagery (where applicable) for this project. 

Rethinking funding for the future

Marguerite Hunter Blair – Chief Executive of Play Scotland  –  on ‘rethinking funding for the future’ : a reflection from the Planning in uncertainty peer support sessions by Corra Foundation and IVAR. 

For many of us in the third sector, we don’t just care about the job, the organisation or how to access the latest funding stream — we care passionately about social justice issues. We are highly motivated and energised by our ability to make a positive difference on the ground, and in real-time, for people in our communities.

Working with memberships, partners and a wide range of stakeholders, we innovate, energise and build capacity to deliver amazing results in our sectors and for funders.

The wobbly bridge, which can quickly become a tight rope without a safety net, is an uncertain funding foundation.

This doesn’t just jeopardise posts, salaries, pensions, and staff development — it is a barrier to attracting and retaining talented people who seek career progression and financial security. It also fosters division over collaboration as organisations seek to sustain their footprint and future.

Evidence shows that five-year core funding is essential to achieving outcomes; it is also a valuable lever in attracting additional funds and investment partners. ‘Building back better’ must include rethinking this hand-to-mouth approach to funding which can feel disrespectful, debilitating, and demeaning for voluntary organisations.

‘Timely action for a shattered community’

On Tuesday 30th July 2019, heavy rainfall in the North Yorkshire Dales resulted in widespread flooding across Swaledale, Wensleydale and Arkengarthdale. The flooding caused extensive property damage and adversely affected the lives of people across the local area.

In response to the disaster, the Two Ridings Community Foundation (Two Ridings) established a Flood Recovery Fund, which provided grants to community members affected by the flooding. Working with a Grants Panel made up of local people, Two Ridings awarded grants totalling £490,620. These grants were spread across three phases, each with a distinct objective.

As the second anniversary of the flooding approaches, it is an appropriate time to reflect on what happened and how the Fund helped the community. Two Ridings commissioned the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) to evaluate the implementation and outcomes of the Swaledale & Wensleydale Flood Recovery Fund (‘the Fund’). 

We expect that this report’s findings will generate learning for Two Ridings but they should also have broader applicability. At the end, we therefore make recommendations which are designed to enhance the ability of all community foundations to respond effectively to local disasters.

Communities need flexible funders to influence the public sector

Over the last three weeks, I’ve met 32 leaders of small and medium voluntary organisations at four online peer support sessions. I have been inspired by their dedication and creativity: by hook or by crook, they have made it possible for services to reach people in dire need. Used to a turbulent environment and light on bureaucracy, their organisations moved remarkably quickly in response to the immediate crisis of lockdown, and have proved remarkably adaptable and resilient throughout the twists and turns that followed. Children with learning disabilities; undocumented young migrants; families of prisoners; housebound older people – all, and many more, have been supported by local organisations.

But the duration of the crisis, and the extreme levels of uncertainty, have stretched many close to their limits. And now, as we emerge out of an extended period of restrictions into a period of unpredictability, leaders are faced with harsh realities. On the one hand, demand for services is growing, from people with increasingly complex needs; on the other, staff are exhausted and funding is precarious.  

Our recent conversations – like with charity CEOs we met through our Leading in Uncertainty peer support sessions   echo much of what we heard in our 2012 study of social welfare voluntary organisations and their experiences of navigating their way through the recession. Then, as now, we heard stories of resilience and determination, as well as anxiety and despair.

‘I found the lack of recognition of our sector during the pandemic difficult… it was often forgotten that charities were still open and providing essential services too.’

At the same time, through both the recession and the pandemic, we have been reminded of the disproportionately important role that trusts and foundations play in supporting these organisations. Since March 2020, their flexibility has offered a lifeline, ensuring the continuation of essential services and activities.

In particular, the emergency has shown us that lighter, more flexible, more trusting funding practices are possible.  And hopes are now high that trusts and foundations will ‘keep the faith’ through the period of prolonged upheaval and uncertainty that lies ahead. This is the driver behind the open and trusting grant-making campaign , with its commitment to sustain and build on progressive practices for the future.

In 2012, we heard a plea for trusts and foundations to step into an advocacy role, using their influence to stimulate and facilitate debate and action about the adverse effect of public sector funding cuts and the decimation of public services. The response was, largely, to remain silent. For some, taking on this role felt like a step too far away from independence and into ‘campaigning’. For others, there was a concern that sweeping statements would ignore the constraints faced by public agencies, and might ‘tar everyone with the same brush and ignore the pockets of flexible public sector practice’.

However, almost ten years later – faced with similar difficulties around government funding, and in ‘the foothills of the economic shock’, the need for someone to speak out remains urgent:

‘We have put in a massive shift. Often unheralded, or taken for granted. Our work is vital, but it can’t just happen on a wing and a prayer. And it’s not just about one tweak here, and one tweak there. We need the whole system to change.’

‘If reporting deadlines on one grant shift, or processes for another become easier, that’s great. But unless that becomes standard practice across the board, the stress and the burden are still there.’

‘Our vital contribution isn’t really understood by statutory authorities. But without the support of these bigger players, we will not be here to make the system work: reaching minoritised communities, interpreting the benefits system, plugging gaps and mopping up mess.’

Trusts and foundations – with their prize assets of independence and leverage – are perfectly placed to step up and argue for greater consistency and flexibility in how the work of voluntary organisations is funded, both within their own sector, as well across all levels of government. This is not the moment to be bashful. For, without vocal and concerted effort, there is a genuine risk that vital organisations providing essential services will buckle under the strain.

This is what applying for funding feels like

IVAR_word cloud_Jun 2021_v11

Introduction from IVAR


Much has been written about how funders acted differently in the context of the pandemic. Funded organisations have celebrated lighter touch processes, faster turnaround of grant decisions, recognition of uncertainty and the need to adapt – even the topsy-turvy scenario of being offered funding without asking for it. There is a strong desire from all concerned to retain these practical changes. However, alongside this and with much less attention, grant applicants are still carrying the burden of rejection after rejection, often receiving little or no feedback, unable to connect with funders as they would like. The experience of applying for funding still has some way to go to ensure it’s a mutually respectful process operating on a more level playing field. 


This is what we heard when we asked 22 charities about their experiences of applying for funding, as part of our open and trusting grant-making initiative. Whilst almost everyone recognised the positive changes through Covid-19, many still talked about the emotional rollercoaster generated by unsuccessful applications: the stress and self-doubt, the fear and inability to understand what is really needed for success. This blog, in the words of grant applicants themselves, offers an insight into these feelings. We ended by asking ‘what would make it feel better’? Some of the answers are surprisingly simple and return to the concepts of respectful, open and trusting grant-making. 

‘Exciting’, ‘rewarding’, ‘creative’


As grant applicants, we are incredibly passionate about the work we do. Writing grant applications is part of the fun and challenge of our job; successfully applying for funding helps our organisations to fulfil their mission and support the communities we serve.


However, for every successful application we make, there are many more that have been rejected.


Dealing with rejection


We know funders receive large volumes of applications and have to make tough choices but dealing with rejection can be immensely disappointing. We feel that we’re letting our organisations down, as well as our team and colleagues. You can feel responsible for the success of the entire organisation. It’s embarrassing having to tell colleagues ‘we didn’t get it’ – people’s jobs and our work for beneficiaries is at stake.


One of the most frustrating things is that you rarely get any communication from funders. To put so much work into an application that you get really excited about, but not receive any feedback, is incredibly difficult. It makes you question your skills and whether that funder will ever be right for you.



Maintaining resilience and wellbeing


Learning how to manage rejection and build resilience is a key part of how we persevere. Having a stable team and support network is vital in helping you manage the emotions that come up when applying for funding.


It’s not always as simple as picking up the phone to ask why an application didn’t make it through. The power dynamics make that hard, and you don’t always know the rules. It’s like that feeling you get as a teenager, plucking up the courage to call someone you wanted to ask out. You’d dial the number but hang up at the last minute as you were scared they’d say no.



Things can change because things have changed during this pandemic


We have seen greater flexibility from funders, with offers of emergency or unrestricted funding, and relationships more likely to be characterised by trust and open communication.


Having more positive relationships has allowed us to be more honest about our struggles, and clearer about the support we need.


However, with things beginning to open up again and emergency funding coming to an end, we are still in a period of deep uncertainty. While we are grateful that funders showed so much compassion and flexibility during the pandemic, we are fearful that this behaviour won’t continue – things may be slowly going to back normal, but we’re not out of the woods yet!



What would make it feel better?


Applying for funding needs to be a mutually beneficial experience but at the moment it often feels one-sided. Current application and assessment processes can bring up feelings of dejection and failure, but in the best cases they can be incredibly rewarding. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach – what suits some organisations may not suit others – but we know that open and honest communication is crucial whatever the process looks like.


We’d like to see more of a balance between the needs of charities applying and the funders receiving applications – so that there is less of a burden on either.


Here are five things that funders can do to help:


  1. Continue the flexible, open and trusting funding practices that many adopted during the pandemic – clear criteria, core or unrestricted funding and light-touch forms all make a big difference.
  2. Be more transparent with eligibility criteria and share decision-making processes.
  3. Consider different requirements depending on the size of grant. For example, be open to different types of applications (e.g. video applications), use publicly held information (e.g. financial information from the charity commission) and only ask relevant questions.
  4. Ringfence funding to support specific groups or communities (e.g. small charities, community-led groups, ethnically diverse charities). Smaller organisations and those that support marginalised communities are often competing with larger organisations that have more resource and a paid fundraising team. Ringfencing funding could help.
  5. Create opportunities for open dialogue. Sometimes it feels like funders exist behind computers. Being able to talk honestly, even if we’re told that our application has been unsuccessful, is a sign of a good funder who we may want to develop a relationship with in the future.

A last word from IVAR


In the rush and sheer volume of applications received, it might be easy to forget there’s a person behind the application form and that how funders acknowledge, feedback and communicate decisions has a real impact on how applicants experience the process. Grant applicants are passionate people who care deeply about the work they do they and know that it’s not possible to develop in-depth relationships with all funders or be successful every time. But following through on some simple commitments to a more open process, where feedback is standard and relationships easier to navigate, would go a long way to level up the power imbalance. Our aim must surely be to remove words like ‘scary’, ‘frightening’ ‘stressful’ and ‘frustrating’ from people’s experience.  


The next stage of this research will explore how a small group of funders are trying to bring the principles of trust and respect to life in their applications and assessments processes.


This blog is based on the experiences of 22 charities based across the UK, including: 
Logos of charities who have co-signed the blog.

Three ways City Bridge Trust approached flexible funding during the pandemic

City Bridge Trust (CBT) have signed up to our eight commitments for open and trusting grant-making. They join us as one of our 70 #FlexibleFunders to share their experience of responding flexibly.


I recently joined 10 funders at one of the first Community of Practice meetings to discuss Commitment Six – “We will enable them (funded organisations) to respond flexibly to changing priorities and needs“. It was a stimulating and enlightening discussion, which I look forward to building on as the community grows over the coming year. Inevitably, we discussed how the pandemic has catalysed funders to enable flexible and responsive work more than ever before. At the Trust, we approached this in several ways:


  1. Collaboration 

By joining London Funders’ ‘London Community Response’ (LCR) funder collaboration, administering the “pooled” funding element, we were able to direct more than £30m of funding to organisations that were pivoting their work to respond flexibly to the needs of London’s communities. We know from listening to our own funded organisations that much of London’s voluntary sector was involved in response work; at points, over 70% adapted their work in some way. By working together, funders were able to draw on each other’s skills. We also utilised the knowledge and expertise of voluntary and community organisations, including the LCR Equity and Inclusion partners, Ubele Initiative, Inclusion London, Women’s Resource CentreLGBT+ Consortium, Council of Somali Organisations and London Gypsies and Travellers, more efficiently as a collective.


  1. Core funding 

At the beginning of the crisis, we contacted our funded organisations to confirm our commitment to support them at such a crucial time. We had signed up to the London Funders “We Stand with the Sector” statement and wanted to back this up with tangible action.

We offered organisations that were holding project grants the opportunity to convert their funding to a core grant until March 2021. This allowed partners the freedom to quickly make decisions on expenditure changes using their knowledge and expertise of how best to run their organisation.

As the impact of the crisis became clear, we renewed the offer for a further 12 months. 36% of those offered the initial conversion took up the offer. Some organisations couldn’t utilise core funding, so we were open to other ways of supporting them, for example, pausing funding until projects could get up and running again.

We also offered many of our funded organisations with an annual income of under £0.5m a one-off payment equivalent to one-quarter of our usual yearly support. This was not tied to the project that we usually funded – organisations were free to apply the money to any of their costs, as they saw fit[1]. We heard from our own funded organisations and learnt from research, such as the Greater London Authority’s London Community Response survey, that smaller organisations could be much more flexible (and were less likely to have furloughed staff). They were uniquely placed to quickly respond to the emergency and to be trusted in their communities.


In Wave 5 of the London Community Response, recognising overwhelming feedback from the sector regarding the lack of longer-term non-project-related funding, we decided not to restrict grants to Covid-related work or specific projects. Instead, we invited organisations to apply for core funding towards any element of their work, including developmental costs.


  1. Minimising bureaucracy

We explored ways to free up more of our funded organisations’ resources, allowing them more space and time to reimagine services in light of the crisis. Our Impact and Learning team considered what we could do to reduce the administrative burden of our reporting systems; we drastically cut down the number of questions and amount of detail in monitoring forms. Funded organisations were still able to tell us about the impact of their work, but with a more focused lens. This approach was well-received, particularly in tandem with a relational approach to monitoring deadlines, extending where necessary. For emergency response grants, we offered a choice between completing a short form or participating in a phone conversation. Our Funding Managers reached out personally to organisations in their portfolio; to offer a listening ear and explore whether there were other ways we could ease the burden.


What next?


Over the year, these actions felt like authentic and realistic commitments to the spirit of the sixth principle. We’ve repeatedly heard how helpful a flexible and open approach was, particularly the early contact to check in with organisations.


Our funded organisations report that core support enabled them to adapt speedily, with the most significant shift being to online delivery. Many organisations had to make multiple adaptations – core funding was crucial to respond in this way. Grantees have told us that they’ve developed their partnership working, increasing referrals and signposting to reach more people and providing enhanced support for staff and volunteers. They’ve also integrated peer-learning and co-production approaches, improved “keeping-in-touch” activity and enhanced the level of tailored support on offer.


There’s more work to do; we want to integrate learning from the LCR collaboration into our practice in the future. We awarded almost 2,000 LCR grants, and quickly found that an even more flexible approach than we were used to was necessary. We amended our grant offer letters to reflect that we trusted organisations to change how projects were delivered.

Monitoring data collected so far demonstrates that organisations consistently delivered on the aims they initially set out (even if the delivery itself was tweaked along the way). Almost 90% of grant recipients spent the funds on what they had anticipated – organisations were able to accurately predict the support their communities needed, even in a time of unprecedented crisis.


We are reviewing our approach to core funding, having interviewed funded organisations (those who both accepted and declined the offer) and our Funding Managers and using other data from the last year. This will feed into the design of what core funding will look like for us in the future.


Our funded organisations have access to a Funding Manager with authority to approve reasonable adjustments; we will continue to ensure this built into our culture.


These steps have been taken alongside a wider journey towards become a values-led funder, which is still a work in progress.  Alongside continuing to fund, read and listen to, act on, and value the work of the voluntary and community sector, including infrastructure organisations like the LCR equity and inclusion partners, this approach will facilitate our partnership work with funded organisations to ensure that projects we support can be flexible across the lifetime of our funding.

How to get involved

You can find out more about open and trusting grant-making at our Flexible Funders webpage, including how to sign up to our Community of Practice. For more details or to share your own Flexible Funders story with us, please contact


[1] We are limited by our own charitable objects to funding work that benefits Londoners. Therefore, all funding referenced in this article was restricted in this way. This is one of the reasons that we refer to “core” funding, rather than “unrestricted” funding.

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.

Having meaningful conversations about your funding approach

The Shears Foundation have signed up to our eight commitments for open and trusting grant–making. They join us as one of our #FlexibleFunders to share their experience of our first Community of Practice and their key takeaways:


The Shears Foundation Approach


The Shears Foundation is a family foundation, set up in 1994, which makes grants of around £600,000 to £700,000 each year, mostly in the North East of England.


When I first heard about IVAR’s #FlexibleFunders call to action for open and trusting grant-making, there was an immediate appeal. The Shears Foundation is founded on principles of trust and mutual understanding between us and those we are helping to support. As a family foundation with a board of committed trustees, we are in an ideal position to be flexible, agile and take a degree of risk. Our philosophy is that we can be an effective funder through:



In fact, the reaction from some of our trustees when I proposed that we should take the pledge and sign up can be illustrated with this one response:

“I think we are already doing everything we can, in the best possible way”.

After some discussion, we agreed that joining IVAR’s Community of Practice would give us a great opportunity to further develop what we do, hear about others’ best practice, and also share our own experiences in a cooperative and collaborative forum.

This ties in with my own philosophy and that of the Shears Foundation’s founders: it is vital for any organisation to adapt and improve through self-evaluation and continuous improvement. Hearing and learning from what others do is a key component of this.


In this blog, I’d like to share my experience of attending the first Community of Practice online event in April 2021.



The Community of Practice


I wasn’t sure what to expect from the first online meeting, apart from a warm welcome. What struck me straight away was the range of attendees: large and medium-sized family trusts and foundations; place-based funders; national funders; funders with interest in a particular field or theme; CVS’s and Community Foundations were all in attendance. The beauty of this was a diverse range of perspectives and challenges that were discussed in moving closer to the eight commitments.


What was particularly interesting were the lessons learnt by funders from the Coronavirus pandemic. Many of the participants recognised that the groups that they supported had to adapt, change and think on their feet, almost overnight in March 2020. Funders overwhelmingly recognised that they had a responsibility to match the adaptability, resourcefulness and agility of their grantees.


Funders had employed several important strategies in response, proving that we can work more flexibly. Strategies included automatically unrestricting grants, allowing delays and repurposing of grants for project funding, and accelerating and simplifying application processes.


Most importantly, there seemed to be a common thread: as funders we needed to value what a charity/beneficiary achieves, not how they achieve it.


Another key takeaway was to recognise the need for unrestricted funding and trust our grantees to know the best way to spend funds to achieve their goals. We currently offer core funding for funding a particular role / paid position or perhaps a specific non-project aspect of running costs. However, this isn’t truly ‘unrestricted’, and this is a discussion I’d like the trustees to have at our Annual General Meeting (AGM).


It was clear that the organisations attending were at different stages of their learning journey to being more open and trusting in their grant-making.


The session provided the ideal introduction, with open and honest discussion, respect for differing viewpoints and a positive and optimistic atmosphere.


I’m looking forward to being part of this as time goes on and incorporating insights into our practice.

Word cloud of what grantees says about the Shears Foundation.




Beneficiary feedback


One thing we could improve is getting feedback from the groups and charities we support on how we work. It’s something that we will be building into our processes in future.


However, I was asked to make a presentation recently on how we had responded to the Coronavirus pandemic. I wanted to get some “quick and dirty” feedback and asked 25 of our recent grant recipients (a mix of groups we’ve known for years and some new to us) to honestly describe our relationship in just three words.


The word cloud above shows we have the basis we need to build even more open and trusting grant-making in the future.


The biggest challenge for The Shears Foundation


We are fortunate to have a strong board with different backgrounds and wide-ranging attitudes to risk. I think balancing this range of perspectives and settling on an agreed attitude to risk is our next step, but it could be a challenge going forward.

In the words of one of our trustees:

“My only query would be in relation to commitment 3: accepting risk. I was just wondering how this squares with our duties as trustees and in relation to what the Charity Commission expects from us. I know that every grant we approve comes with a degree of risk, and I’m sure in practice, we would continue to assess each application with the same degree of rigour. But if this initiative is successful, I wouldn’t want it to evolve into something binding that might clash with our own due diligence processes.”

What is clear is that sharing experience, practice and solutions with others through this group will really inform how we approach this challenge and others in the future.

How to get involved

You can find out more about open and trusting grant-making at our Flexible Funders webpage, including how to sign up to our Community of Practice. For more details or to share your own Flexible Funders story with us, please contact


Learning in the flow of working – Learning and evaluation in trusts and foundations during Covid-19

We have seen a growing appetite to make Covid-19 a transformational moment, enabling the learning function to inform, support and underpin a more agile and collaborative approach, resisting the ‘snap back into calcified, inflexible systems’. The convening of the Evaluation Roundtable in December 2020 saw the start of important conversations about how to make this aspiration a reality: ‘How do we use this moment as a catalyst – not just individually but collectively – to shift the relationship between funders and funded organisations?’.


Our first round of meetings of the Community of Practice for 2021 focused on returning learning to the system, in particular the mechanisms that are set up in our institutions 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’. How well do they support agility and experimentation? Do they value and make good use of different kinds of learning – both formal and informal? What gets in the way of good learning? This briefing draws on the contributions of 19 learning and evaluation staff from 17 foundations, and offers our reflections on the questions and opportunities for funders that they raise.