Tweet about this on Twitter Email this to someone Share on LinkedIn

Learning with intent: How to pay greater attention to how, why and from whom we learn

In our third blog from our learning in uncertainty series, Nikki Wimborne from Cripplegate Foundation reflects on breaking free from old habits and developing questions to challenge how they work.

Nikki Wimborne is the Programme Manager at the Cripplegate Foundation.

Processing the last 18 months since the UK’s first Covid-19 national lockdown remains an ongoing activity. It’s hard to fathom the lives lost and the very rapid changes to lifestyle everyone has experienced. Yet, in some sense, the uncertainty and chaos has allowed us to break free from old habits and, most importantly, to question and challenge how we work.


As a place-based funder, we pride ourselves on proactively building and maintaining relationships with a range of local stakeholders. We spend most of our time in the communities we serve, listening and learning to inform our understanding of the local environment so we can respond and adapt accordingly. An in-person relationship – the key to our whole approach – was tested online, and, there was less opportunity to experience learning and to share this with each other, at least initially. This was intensified by the pressure to capture and make sense of the pandemic and the impact it was having on people – as it was happening.


What followed was months of joining forces with others, united under the common purpose of responding to the pandemic, giving rise to a more collective way of working, both internally and externally, within our geographic place and beyond. As a part-time member of staff, I had always been extremely selective about what learning events, workshops, and conversations I joined due to time and workload pressures. With the ability to join remotely, I was able to juggle childcare responsibilities and immerse myself in wider conversations and different networks. It was energising and enlightening, but overwhelming.


Data, unheard voices, and innovation were free-flowing, but it was hard to know how best to collate and use all this information, when to zoom in and out of our geographic place, and how and when to learn and share with others without duplicating efforts or losing our focus.


As we learn to live with Covid-19 and Cripplegate Foundation embarks on renewing its three-year strategy, it feels important to sustain the impetus and purpose around learning. Whilst we don’t have all the answers on how to do this, we are clearer on the questions we need to ask ourselves to build on and link learning into our strategic framework. What we learn is clearly important, but the questions pay greater attention to how and why we learn and from whom, to improve practice.



My 10 questions are:


  • How do we create a framework for learning within the foundation that all staff can feed into?


  • How do we create spaces internally and externally for learning?


  • How do we give prominence to informal learning with local people and those that work with them?


  • How do we pull together and interpret this learning with strategic intent and purpose?


  • How do we present this learning for it to be considered as ‘research’ or ‘evidence’?


  • How do we ensure we listen to and learn from a diverse range of people?


  • How do we ensure learning is mutually beneficial rather than extractive?


  • How and when are we bolder in using our learning to advocate for change?


  • How and when is it imperative to work collectively, beyond our geographic place, to have a greater impact on the residents we serve?


  • How do we bring our Board on this learning journey when they are not involved in the day-to-day?


Perhaps the biggest learning from the pandemic is that responding alone doesn’t feel enough now. There feels like a bigger call to action: to utilise learning to evolve and change so that we can improve people’s lives. Statutory, voluntary, private, and public sector organisations all proved change can happen quickly in a crisis. It seems incongruous not to apply this to those whose everyday life is routinely in crisis, uncertain and unstable.  


The Evaluation Roundtable 

If you would like more information on the Evaluation Roundtable, please visit our page.


If you are interested in attending sessions, please email


Attendance is by invitation only, but we warmly encourage you to get in touch.

Supporting a dynamic learning agenda across City Bridge Trust: Our present, vision and direction

In the second blog from our learning in uncertainty blog series, Donna Buxton from City Bridge Trust (CBT) reflects on how the pandemic has influenced the development of their Impact and Learning Strategy. 


Donna Buxton is the joint Head of Impact & Learning at City Bridge Trust, with Ruth Feder.


Our journey – where we are now?


We work in partnerships with our funded organisations to reduce inequality and grow stronger, more resilient and thriving communities for a London that serves everyone. That is our aim, that remains our focus.


Our Bridging Divides strategy (2018-2023), clearly established our roadmap. We have additional assets in our ‘toolbox’: access to strong networks across all sectors and a commitment to social investment.  Our Impact & Learning Strategy outlines our commitment to grow our organisational learning culture, embedding an equitable approach to delivering impact (whilst fostering continuous learning) and ultimately improving our philanthropic solutions and approaches.


CBT has also teamed up with a learning partner  Renaisi, a social enterprise which supports us in to develop our learning culture and undertake regular ‘temperature checks’ to measure how effectively we are achieving this. The Impact and Learning team also works closely with our staff who represent a vibrant and dynamic learning community.


Our ambition has always been to develop effective feedback loops (internally and externally), either through data we routinely collect or other types of insights we receive from our funded organisations. We want to prove what we do is making a difference but also continually improve our offer to funded organisations and wider stakeholders across London.


Our organisational values underpin a progressive, adaptive, collaborative, inclusive, environmentally responsible and representative way of  working.  However, the pandemic presented an unforeseen ‘bump’ in the road. 


Where do we want to get to?


At this mid-point in our Bridging Divides strategy, we are progressing on our journey towards having a strong learning culture. We are members of various communities of practice including IVAR’s Evaluation Roundtable and Charity Evaluation Working Group (ChEW) – this ensures CBT keeps up to speed with the latest social research and evaluative tools and techniques. This progress has also been been helped by learning from the recovery efforts (at all levels) across London and the concerted ongoing efforts of the whole CBT team.



But it may be pertinent to view our journey as never ceasing, as we may want to change course and shift gears when required.



How do we get there?


The pandemic has given us much to think about, particularly revisiting where we want to go in this ‘new normal’ environment and how we get there. We’ve taken action over the last 18 months to navigate around difficult terrain, while remaining responsive and delivering at pace to our funded organisations.



We are excited for the future. We have tried to keep the communication channels between CBT and funded organisations open throughout the pandemic.



To reduce the burden on funded organisations, we only collected data that we absolutely needed for our legal, accountability and evaluative learning requirements. We also listened to people’s stories so we can ensure decision making is always based on need and grounded in robust evidence. We will continue to adopt this process moving forward, remaining flexible and adaptable.



As part of our dynamic learning agenda, we are also:


  • Developing a ‘Data Strategy’, ensuring we are always equitable in our data monitoring and collection, asking the right questions at the right time, benchmarking ourselves and collaborating on a cross sector ‘data standard’.


  • Running a programme of learning activities for colleagues, including regular ‘data digests’, ’lunch and learn‘ sessions and deep dives into key topics, which keep us up to speed on current socio-economic issues across London.


  • Developing an external learning programme for and with our funded organisations which will build collaborative relationships and drive effective feedback loops. 


  • Revising our theory of change so intended outcomes and impact reflect what Londoners now need from our funding streams. It will also signal to us what the ‘mechanisms of change’ could be (connected to our distinct programmes), our assumptions of what could work (to achieve our aims), and what are the enabling factors.


From all of this we can ensure we are in the right gear to provide support.  You never know what is round the corner.


About City Bridge Trust: 


City Bridge Trust is the funding arm of the charity, Bridge House Estates.


Our aim is for London to be a city where all individuals and communities can thrive, especially those experiencing disadvantage and marginalisation.


We provide grants totalling around £25m per year.


The Evaluation Roundtable


If you would like more information on the Evaluation Roundtable, please visit our page.


If you are interested in attending sessions, please email


Attendance is by invitation only, but we warmly encourage you to get in touch.

Covid made us all into “learning organisations”

In the first blog of our learning in uncertainty series, Shoshana Boyd Gelfand reflects on what it means to be a learning organisation and how we might incorporate the new skills developed during the pandemic and embrace disequilibrium, to become lifelong learners.


Shoshana Boyd Gelfand is the Director of Leadership and Learning at the Pears Foundation.

The literature on “learning organisations” is vast. In a fast-paced world, those who are capable of continuous learning are clearly going to outpace those who aren’t. And yet we all know just how challenging it is to be one of those elusive “learning organisations”. Moving people from a place of comfort into a place of learning is never simple.


So, here’s the good news – if your organisation survived Covid, you are by definition a learning organisation. There is simply no way that anyone got through this period without adapting and learning new ways of working.


These new ways may have included new technical skills such as:


  • How to be part of a team when you can’t be in the same room together
  • How to fundraise when you can’t look someone in the eye
  • How to collaborate using online tools
  • How to work when your child/dog/neighbour is distracting you in the background


Just as important as these technical skills, we all had to learn new attitudes and dispositions:


  • How to function in a situation of great uncertainty
  • How to motivate ourselves and others following major disappointments
  • How to manage serious levels of loss (of life, of health, or just of normalcy)


Both the technical and attitudinal learning that we have achieved have been hard won. This learning has made us more resilient, more flexible, and – crucially – better at learning (which is fundamentally about encountering and engaging with something new). We have learned how to learn: a huge achievement and one not to be squandered.


The big question now is not how do we learn –hardship is often an effective teacher, and surviving a pandemic has effectively made us all into successful learners. Our challenge is now twofold: 


1) How do we incorporate our hard-won Covid learning into our organisations?


As eager as we may be to spring forward into a “new normal”, it’s crucial that organisations pause and reflect on the changes we have made over the past year and a half. Many of those changes are worth holding onto! Organisations can ask themselves questions such as:


  • Under what circumstances should we continue to offer flexible work schedules?
  • Should we maintain a “paperless” office?
  • How can we continue to make conferences/meetings accessible and climate-friendly?


Leaders have an obligation to capture this learning, reflect on it, and consciously choose which practices to continue, and which ones to leave behind.


2) How do we continue to learn without the harsh teacher of Covid breathing down our necks?


So much of what we learned wouldn’t have happened without the pressure of closed offices and the simple necessity to somehow carry on with our vital work. If you had asked me two years ago whether I could do leadership training and team-building workshops online, I would have said no. I wouldn’t have even tried. And yet . . . what I learned during the pandemic is that this kind of virtual training is indeed possible. Some of the techniques that I discovered (by painful trial and error) are ones that I will carry on doing. But I never would have discovered them had I not been pressured into that. So, the question for me personally is how do I motivate myself to continue to be open to those things that I would have once dismissed as “impossible”?


The big question moving ahead is:


Can we not only incorporate the new skills we’ve developed during the pandemic, but can we also consciously embrace the disequilibrium that comes from being placed in new situations?


My personal conviction is that we have no choice. Our organisations have survived (at least thus far) perhaps the worst year that many of us could have imagined. We’ve lost so much during that time. The only way to make up for that loss is to learn from it – and to let it transform us into confident ongoing learners.

The Evaluation Roundtable

If you would like more information on the Evaluation Roundtable, please visit our page.

If you are interested in attending sessions, please email

Attendance is by invitation only, but we warmly encourage you to get in touch.

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. 

How to use learning questions

At IVAR, we recognise the value and importance of engaging people with varied viewpoints in our work, and listening to them. But knowing the importance of this and actually doing it are two very different things – and it can be difficult to know where to start.


One way to hear different perspectives is to share your own thinking – including things you’re still thinking through, even if it’s messy. This helps others join the conversation and see where there is space to shape thinking, bringing alternative views on the world and different interpretations of what’s happening. The main purpose of this is to collectively understand what we’re seeing and what this means we should do next.


To support this in our work, we have been exploring the idea of ‘powerful questions’, pioneered by our friends at the Center for Evaluation Innovation and further developed at the UK Evaluation Roundtable:


The kinds of questions we often pose — Did the intervention work? What are we learning about a particular issue? — may lead to information that is a useful input into learning, but they often don’t help us determine what to do next. Powerful questions, if answered, will make a difference in how we do our work.’


Find out more about powerful learning questions


We decided to draft a set of questions in relation to our strategy, to guide both our own reflections and quarterly board discussions. We wanted to move towards ‘so what/now what?’ conversations, and not get stuck in performance updates that tend to be more about ‘what’.


So, we asked Tanya Beer – our US partner on the Evaluation Roundtable – to facilitate a session for our Senior Leadership Team and two trustees, with the aim of developing these powerful learning questions.


One of the questions that we came up with relates to our goal of ‘being the best IVAR that we can be’. It was originally drafted as:


How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 


Later we developed this, tweaking it to:


How are our internal workings enabling us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful? 


We asked Tanya for feedback on our revised version and she offered some insights that, in the spirit of making our own thinking visible, we think are really useful to explain both the theory and practice of powerful learning questions.


Tanya’s Feedback:


I want to reflect for a moment on the psychological aspect of a powerful learning question as a strategic question rather than an evaluative or knowledge-gathering question. The reframing of the question has turned into a conventional descriptive reporting and evaluation/data gathering question instead of a strategic puzzle question. It’s a subtle difference, but it really changes the tone of the conversation when you frame learning conversations in this way.


The purpose of the forward-facing and action-focused framing is that those questions invite the group into a generative process of jointly making sense of why something has happened, what insights that produces, and – most importantly – what that means for how you work going forward. Compare this to a conventional board meeting where trustees listen to your description and then say ‘well, that was the answer to the question’, and don’t really know how to help you think through what’s next or if you even really want them to do so.


The future-facing and action-orientated framing propels people to move from reflection mode (which is the space that boards in particular are already very comfortable sitting in as passive consumers of information) and into ‘so what/now what’ mode (which is where information gets turned into learning-as-new-capacity-to-act). It reminds them that the conversation is not just a reporting update, but rather invites them to make meaning and explore implications to improve the work together.


It does take some mental gymnastics to look backwards using a future-oriented question, particularly for people who are accustomed to bringing answers to the table about what has happened in the past. But powerful questions are not answered by the data and observations. Instead, the data and observations you bring are inputs into the learning-as-action conversation: ‘what do insights about the past mean for our future work?’

So, if I were organising a learning conversation with the board, here’s the flow of conversation I would want to have:

  • The strategic/operational puzzle we would like to think through together is: How can our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?
  • What we have experimented with over the past year is: [Describe strategies]
  • What we have observed about our experiments is: [Describe results so far – this is the question you framed above – for example, you could produce a report on ‘How are our internal workings enabling us (or not) to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality, and useful?’. But the conversation does not end there.]
  • What insights do we draw from these results so far and from others’ experience? [For example, in addition to learning from your own data, what insights do board members bring from their own experience around what it takes to set up internal workings in a way that unleashes the full potential of the organisation?]
  • Therefore, given what we’ve learned, going forward: [POWERFUL QUESTION] How are our internal workings enable us to develop and deliver work that is relevant, high quality and useful?


So, this is a re-orientation away from a question whose answer is a description about what has happened already, and towards a question whose answer is what should happen next. You still bring data and reflection on what has happened in the past to the table to inform the discussion by grounding it in what you already know, but the real point of the whole exercise is the ‘so what/now what’ question.

Learn more about powerful questions

At IVAR, we are currently experimenting with this way of framing learning conversations – both with our board and with our team of staff and associates. We hope that this piece helps you to think about whether and how this kind of question could be applied to your own organisation.

If you would like to find out more about the idea of powerful questions, sign up for a webinar with Tanya Beer on 16 September.

How to build an effective partnership

Developed through Lancashire and South Cumbria’s test and learn initiative: ‘How to build an effective partnership’.

In Lancashire and South Cumbria, statutory and voluntary sector professionals have been working together to design, test and deliver improved health outcomes for local people. We’ve identified nine puzzle pieces for creating connections that enable meaningful collaboration.

Download the resource

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.

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