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How can we – as funders – help communities to deal with the pandemic?

Over the past 15 months, we’ve been supporting grassroots, community-based grant-making in each of the four home nations through Comic Relief’s UK Intermediary Funders initiative¹. Learning has been key to our approach as we want to understand how we as funders can share and shift power to people in communities through ‘lived experience’ and community-led approaches, both in the grant-making process and the grants themselves. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is deepening inequalities and creating an environment of prolonged uncertainty, how can we continue to do that? What are we learning as a group of funders that we can hold onto as we move into recovery and renewal?

Through this blog, we wanted to share some of the questions being discussed amongst our grassroots intermediary funders.

Emergency vs the longer term

Most charities are really anxious about funding – they may have some money now for emergency work, but with no fundraising and limited grant-making for non-emergency work, there will be a gap very soon. We are really conscious of this, and know there is a role for us, our partners and other foundations in protecting charities for the future.

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

  • Should we stall some emergency funding, in case there is a second ‘lockdown’ in the autumn and winter? Or should we hope that we will be able to meet future needs through additional fundraising?
  • How can we work to ensure that emergency funding is accessible to those who need it and supports organisations on the frontline to deliver crisis support whilst sustaining them so they are able to provide in the medium and long term? What’s on the horizon?
  • We can’t yet predict when something vaguely resembling normal life will resume, and what exactly that will look like. What does that mean for the timing and focus of our support, and our expectations of charities in relation to plans and activities? When should we seek to shift from emergency to recovery?
  • We do know that the pandemic is exposing and deepening inequalities, and that both the charity and funding sector will need to adapt – to both changing needs in communities and shifting priorities. What will that mean for future grant-making processes? What can we do to retain the flexibility and collaboration that has emerged between many funders over the last few months?
  • Many organisations are providing emergency support beyond their particular area of experience – like mental health support or working with women affected by domestic abuse. Can or should this work be sustained over the long term, ensuring those intervening in such complex issues have a ‘do no harm’ approach as a starting point? This will ensure those doing this work have the proper expertise to deal with the issues responsibly and effectively.
  • Many emergency funds ignore so-called ‘nice to have’ things in the community, like cultural arts, theatre and sports – in the long run, how is this going to impact on people’s lives and social values, especially young people’s education and mental health?

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

New community groups have formed across the UK in response to Covid-19, and they aren’t waiting for funding – they’re just getting on with it, driven by empathy and with little ambition to be constituted organisations. Some of us have funded residents’ groups even though, in the past, we would have preferred something more structured; others are looking at whether this could continue beyond emergency: ‘I don’t think there is anything stopping us, it is us that strangle ourselves’. How do we support these groups as drivers of community change? And will they want to continue or disband after the pandemic? ‘In a time of crisis and chaos, there has been a new order established around shifting the power which has communities and their responses at the heart’.

 

As funders, while appreciating the myriad of amazing community responses, we need to be mindful of the groups that already exist doing responsive work. We must not forget them, and we must remain alert to the possibility of duplication – between longer-standing activities and newer, emergency responses: for example, established food banks working on ending food poverty, alongside newer groups doing similar work, could lead to an over or under supply of food.

 

Doing the right thing – ask funded partners or potential funded partners to help us think about the future

 

Communities have shown tremendous power in leading from the front, reacting first often ahead of both established charity and statutory organisations’ responses and support. They are becoming first responders by asking for feedback from people on the ground to understand local needs. As funders, we must find ways to support and embed this shift in power right down to the local community level. And we must also be conscious to proactively reach out to those groups who are disproportionately affected, may not be well represented in broader community responses, or may not have the means and avenues to be able to directly ask for help? (For example: BAME communities, LGBTQ+ communities, young carers, and people dealing with loss and grief.)

 

Grassroots organisations are already thinking of ways they could deal with the challenges lockdown has thrown up, for the longer term. Things like mental health, isolation, increased inequalities and child poverty, and domestic abuse. After the pandemic, how can this surge of community action help us to understand what is needed and how can we support this community response for resilience and rebuilding?

 

So…

 

Like many funders, we have adapted our processes and made them simpler; we have been flexible in our grant-making; and we have set up emergency funds quickly in response to Covid-19. But it feels like we’re at the start of a period of sustained evolution and adaptation. We hope to work closely with people, communities and other funders as we face the future together.

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 

[1] The four intermediary funders are The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Groundwork in England.

Strategies for survival

At a recent Roundtable discussion for CEOs of voluntary organisations, Arvinda Gohil, CEO of Community Links, discussed her organisation’s recent partnership with Catch22.


Context

 

 
Those present shared the challenges at the forefront of their minds:
 
  • Pressure/squeeze on time, space for planning and asking big questions about the organisation’s future. For example, when and whether to look at merger; and ‘lack of opportunities to have open discussions about challenges’
  • Lack of long-term funding; constant pressure to diversify/reinvent. Basically ‘having to find different ways of meeting the same objectives’, but paucity of alternative funding sources: ‘a drying up of funds; very difficult to find the equivalent elsewhere’
  • Competitive funding environment makes it difficult to judge what/when to share with others
  • Many organisations have no idea what their true financial situation is’
  • ‘The pace and scale of change makes it so difficult to plan or predict when everything is so uncertain’
 
Attendees acknowledged that it is difficult to find people who will tell you what to avoid, and very unusual to have ‘this kind of forum’ for discussion. They hoped to have an open conversation about the above challenges.
 

 

Key messages for organisations who find themselves in crisis

 

 

  • ‘Bumping along from crisis to crisis isn’t sustainable long-term’
  • ‘Comprehensive reviews of your organisation have to start with the finances: is there enough transparency, depth and credibility?’
  • ‘You need cash to downsize and then more cash to re-size’
  • ‘What should matter most is the preservation of the work, not saving the organisation. And if the work is still needed, your job is to find a way of delivering it. But there is no room for sentiment – with the organisation or with people.’
  • ‘In looking for a partner [as a means of keeping the work going], the key question is: what do we each bring and what can we each get out of it?’
  • ‘A crisis can be an opportunity: to focus your mind on what really matters [the work, not the organisation]; and to focus funders’ minds on what their priorities are’
  • ‘Questions about merger or other partnerships should be asked routinely: what is the most appropriate and stable vehicle for delivering our charitable objects and delivering our work – that is what should matter most’
  • ‘If you enter into a formal partnership with another organisation, you need to understand that it’s never going to be the same again. Change is unavoidable.’
  • You can cut things here and there – salami slicing – but at some point, you have to re-structure the organisation that sits at the centre
  • Advice when looking for a partner to work with:
    • Ask for serious technical advice from people who are experienced
    • Get to know the organisation informally – CEO to CEO and Chair to Chair
    • Sit down with the head of the organisation you are looking to work with and consider what the future could look like with that person
    • Carry out due diligence in both directions
    • Shop around
 

 

Messages for Funders

 

 

  1. Rethink Diversification: routine exhortations to diversify income and be ‘more sustainable’ are at odds with realities of the funding environment: competitive; limited opportunities; tendency towards short-term, non-renewable.
  2. Rethink Continuation: ‘if you still get value from your investment, why end it?’
  3. Invest in New Partnership Models: ‘fund a trial of shared services across a group of organisations in the same field/geography; share and promote the lessons to reassure and inspire others’
  4. Supporting Peer Exchange: create space for leaders to think and reflect together, and look at different options and approaches for keeping their work going; as part of that, being proactive about creating linkages between grantees.