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Four principles to shape your grant-making today

With months of local restrictions now extended to a national lockdown, it is clear that ‘Covid-recovery’ is far from us – even with the glimmer of hope in recent news about a new vaccine. And eight months on from the first national lockdown, we all desperately want to move out of emergency response mode. We need to find the confidence, skills and ways of working to operate effectively in our current environment, accepting that changing restrictions will feature in our lives for the foreseeable future. Let’s embrace this ‘new normal’ as best we can.

 

Although ‘paddling furiously’, VCSE leaders are increasingly assured in the face of the certainty of uncertainty: ‘We’re open, but it’s on my mind that we may need to close again.  But we know how to do this, and we will be able to do this more quickly’. And they are finding ways to combine planning with flexibility, enabling them to ‘move with the fluidity of the situation, in a pragmatic way’.

 

Some funders are finding it harder to make this leap. Used to a relatively structured environment of strategies, programmes, funding cycles, grant management and reporting, the constantly changing external context can be highly destabilising: We responded with the speed and agility that was required. But this placed strains on systems which were not developed to respond to such a scenario’. Meeting the requirements of the foreseeable future will be equally challenging. Adaptations introduced during the early stages of the pandemic need to be sustained and further developed. And other elements of the tried, tested, traditional, familiar ways of doing things will also need to change if funders are to make good the heartfelt commitment of so many to stand by the sector – and stand by it still.

 

Many funders felt freed by the imperative of the immediate emergency: ‘There was a lot of licence in the early months to respond generously’. But looking to the longer term calls for hard choices in the face of overwhelming need, a highly complex and changing environment and the imperative to act quickly: ‘The challenges before us are immense. And funders need to make decisions and contribute now’. Whatever strategic decisions individual funders make about their priorities, all have the opportunity to ensure these decisions are underpinned by day-to-day grant-making practices that best support applicants and grantees at the sharp end of delivery.

 

‘Become more of a partner and less of an auditor’

From very early in this crisis, we have heard a drumbeat of consistent and emphatic messages from VCSE leaders – ‘be brave’, ‘be flexible’, ‘trust us’, ‘be clear and open’, ‘understand the pressure we are under and reflect this in how you work’, ‘become more of a partner and less of an auditor’.  Looking back across the learning that has been generated from IVAR’s work with both VCSE leaders and foundation learning and evaluation staff, we would highlight four principles to guide funders in shaping the nuts and bolts of their grant-making and grant management practices now and for the future:  

 

  1. Express priorities, requirements and exclusions with absolute clarity. Funding criteria and guidelines do not always help VCSE organisations to make cost-benefit judgements about potential applications – whether because they have been put together too quickly, not rigorously reviewed from an applicant’s viewpoint, or deliberately written to allow funders to keep their options open. Ambiguity in guidelines is costly and frustrating for applicants at the best of times. In the current circumstances, the obligation not to waste time is paramount – for both applicants and funders.

 

  1. Scrutinise and simplify application and decision-making processes. ‘Pre-Covid expectations’ (about adequate reserve levels, robust forward plans and value for money, for example) may well be unrealistic in this new environment. And small changes make a big difference to applicants – such as testing every question for clarity and removing any that are not essential; relaxing word limits on online forms; or requiring less supporting information. There is much experience to draw on: 85% of funders who responded to IVAR’s recent survey have streamlined their application processes during coronavirus.

 

  1. Give the organisations you support the freedom to act. Make funding decisions based on ‘the spine of an organisation’: its mission, values, aims and track record. Trust these organisations to make good operational judgements about volume of activities, delivery mechanisms and managing risk day-to-day: ‘Funders need to trust us to know what we can do and achieve in our communities. We know how disproportionately some are going to be impacted, so funders need to give us a more blank paper rather than being too prescriptive with too many targets’. Now is the time to have real confidence in your funding judgements – by making longer grants; by giving unrestricted funding; by making reporting as light touch as possible.

 

  1. Act, learn and improve. Everyone is trying to make their best contribution in a context of huge uncertainty: ‘Some of the best solutions come from having some courage – saying “I can live with that risk”’. So, learning is critical: balancing data with intuition; combining evidence with instinct; and turning inevitable problems into better practice: ‘The question is “what can we do better”, not “what is the right answer”. Then we can try out multiple ‘better’ things quickly and back the ones that work’.

 

Read reflections from other funders on their evolving Covid-19 responses in our Learning from lockdown blog series.

 

Invite your grantees to take part in our peer support sessions – we are funded to deliver weekly drop-ins.

 

This blog is based on our work with over 390 VCSE leaders and over 100 trusts and foundations since March 2020.

Covid-19: Getting money quickly to frontline services

I blogged on Wednesday about the simple, immediate actions that funders can take – and many are already taking – to give practical support to their current grantees. This leaves the pressing question of how to respond quickly and effectively to the bigger challenge of supporting and sustaining the wider sector through this crisis.  A huge effort is gathering to tackle this task. And, thanks to the persistence of representative bodies and others, the sector is beginning to feature more strongly in Government thinking and emergency action. But the situation is complex and fast moving. Right now, the sector needs the nimble and targeted response that funders have shown themselves to be capable of in the past. 

 

In particular, the unrolling crisis highlights the importance of the layer of small, grass-roots organisations, galvanising volunteer activity to support vulnerable people or connected deep into the most disadvantaged communities, which both statutory services and larger charities recognise they struggle to reach. The smallest run under the radar of many large national funders – and even the largest tend to rely on a complex patchwork of project grants, with very little core funding or capacity to build reserves. But this is where community action happens – and community action is essential to the care and protection of the most vulnerable and marginalised at this very difficult time.

 

 

‘Applications could be “passported” between funds to avoid duplication of effort for applicants’

 

This sector is fragile and needs help now.  Looking at what others are doing and building on our conversations and past research, we suggest four ways in which funders can show their commitment to these frontline services and get money out quickly to help them:

 

  1. Contribute to the collective effort: Three big funder collaborations – the National Emergencies Trust and London Funders initiatives, and the Third Sector Resilience Fund in Scotland – are well underway. A £1 million fund for smaller charities (launched by Martin Lewis of moneysavingexpert.com (MSE) on 19th March and making its first grants this week) has now grown to £3 million – against applications for support of more than £50 million. For those who have not yet signed up, this is the week to get behind these collaborative initiatives and help them get moving as fast as possible
  2. Connect to local knowledge: Many UK-wide funders have good relationships with local foundations or infrastructure bodies, who are well placed to identify gaps and reach smaller groups providing much needed practical support in their communities. National and local emergency funding initiatives are mobilising, but the speed and strength of collaborative response varies across the country.  If you have trusted colleagues and partners in local areas, why not consider bolstering their funds right now so that grants can start flowing?
  3. Think about who may be missing out: In the face of an emergency of this scale, funders may be predisposed to big interventions or generalist services in the hope of helping the largest number of people. But there are whole sections of society that simply aren’t reached by generalist services or need specialist support. This was true before the virus struck and is a pressing concern now. Some – for example, isolated migrant communities, disabled people with complicating health conditions or women in violent and abusive relationships – are at particular risk from the virus or the consequences of lock down. Many funders are active champions of equalities. Providing funds to local partners specifically for people at risk of missing out or directing financial support through specialist national funders are two ways to make sure they are not further endangered and excluded.
  4. Commit to the lightest possible processes: This is not the time for business as usual in grant-making. Everyone involved in distributing emergency funds is looking to adopt the light touch process necessary to put money in the bank for hard pressed organisations within days not weeks. As part of this, applications could be ‘passported’ between funds to avoid duplication of effort for applicants.

 

We are working closely with our five core funders, and other foundations, to support the leaders of small voluntary organisations and will continue to share insights and ideas to help inform emergency responses.  

Covid-19: What funders can do this week

Last week, IVAR and London Funders issued a joint blog on what was learned from the funding response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, and the Manchester Arena bomb. At the heart of this learning – and of the statement of solidarity with the sector signed by so many funders over the last days – is a commitment to trust, flexibility and urgent action; with a premium on being nimble and proportionate. 

 

The challenge now is to put this into practice.  

 

Conversations over the last few days with organisations on the ground, as well as and with individual trusts and foundations, highlight the speed of change and the intense pressure felt by all service delivery charities and especially small organisations working with vulnerable people and communities. From these conversations, as well as IVAR’s past research and the actions already taken by many funders, we suggest five practical ways in which funders can make a real difference – this week – to their own grantees:

 

  1. Be bold – trust your grantees to know what is needed and to do it. All funders put a lot of effort into assessment and selection. Now is the time to have real confidence in the judgements you made by converting all project or restricted grants into unrestricted funding. Or to restrict them as broadly as is compatible with your own charitable objects – ‘our funding must still be used to benefit children and young people’ or ‘these funds can only be spent on work in Scotland’.
  2. Be generous – organisations are facing immediate additional costs in achieving the difficult balance between responding to need and keeping their volunteers and staff as safe as possible. Appeals are happening and emergency funds are being set up. But, with the best will in the world, it will take some time to raise money and get it out to the people on the ground. And the need – especially for smaller organisations, with few or no reserves – is immediate. Even a relatively small emergency grant, sent this week without being asked for, would be a huge gesture of support. For smaller organisations it would be a lifeline, helping to bridge the gap until formal emergency funds start to flow.
  3. Be genuinely flexible – if you can’t convert to unrestricted grants, don’t ask grantees to call for permission to redirect funding or shift priorities within their current grant. Tell them, in writing, that they can move funds between budget headings as they need to and tell the story of what they have done when this is all over. Many of them have multiple funders, all keen to help. But it’s their clients, communities, volunteers and staff that need their attention right now. Deeper conversations about ‘what next’ can come later.
  4. Be available – if you absolutely have to speak to grantees, or they need to contact you, make sure that they can get straight through to someone who knows about their grant and has sufficient authority to act. Managers, especially in small organisations, are fighting fires on all fronts at the moment. Any contact with funders needs to be supportive, well-informed and efficient.
  5. Be reassuring – most funders have already told their grantees that instalments will be paid without reports, for now. But tackling Covid-19 is calling for social and economic interventions across the world that were unthinkable three months ago and that will persist for many months. Realistically none of us – grantees or funders – can be held accountable for achieving outcomes that we agreed before the virus hit. Tell your grantees now that you know this and will take full account of it in your reporting requirements. More practical ideas will follow shortly from the joint Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and IVAR project on better reporting.

 

Covid-19: What can funders learn from previous emergency responses?

In 2018, IVAR and London Funders published a report looking at the key features of funders’ grant-making responses to the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, and the Manchester Arena bomb. 

 

In response to coronavirus, London Funders is bringing funders together to produce a collaborative and aligned response, supporting the needs of civil society organisations. To inform this response, and ensure that previous insights are not ignored, we have collated what we learnt from past emergencies.

 

We found that across a number of the collaborative funds set up in response to the emergencies, funders stepped outside their normal practices in a range of different ways, most notably:

 

  • Commitment to speed
  • Light-touch application and monitoring
  • Managing risk through relationships
  • Collaborative delivery and delegated decision-making
  • Flexible funding

 

These five bullets capture a particular approach to grant-making, one that is sensitive and attuned to beneficiaries. It is highly relational, rather than contractual; it places a premium on trust; and it suggests a kind of common endeavour, where the assets of the funder (in this case, money) are combined with the assets of grantees (their work) for the common good.

 

Being effective’ in these circumstances does not mean delivering a perfect grant programme that no-one can question or criticise.

 

But it does mean finding a way to direct money quickly and intelligently to where it appears to be most needed – often in a complex and changing situation, where extensive consultation may be impossible. Drawing on the words of organisations and groups in receipt of emergency funding, we can understand ‘effectiveness’ in this context as meaning ‘straightforward, easy, quick and trusting’.

 

Few of the funders that played a part in the emergency responses expected to be taking on this role. 

 

But they saw a gap in support for community organisations and some independent and public funders decided to step in.

 

We identified five conditions, principles and ways of working that may now help others get money quickly and intelligently to community organisations:

 

  • Active networks to support collaboration: In the context of emergency situations, it makes sense for funders to do all they can to work together – and pre-existing funder networks (like London Funders) or close working relationships provide a foundation for them to co-operate and to move quickly.
  • Leadership and facilitation: A quick and coherent response calls for some organisations to be ready to take a lead in framing and facilitating collaborative responses. These roles may best be played by smaller, more nimble funders, characterised by clear values, internal relationships of trust, confident and supportive leadership, small teams and – critically – a shared understanding of risk. Their willingness to act decisively appears to work particularly well for larger, generalist funders, especially those that feel a special responsibility to respond to public emergencies. Some have established procedures to quickly set aside a funding pot, and all operate at a scale where decisions about redirecting staff capacity can be made at executive level. But ‘distance from the ground’ and internal structures and hierarchies can make it more difficult for them to move nimbly in framing or leading a collaborative response.
  • Finding out what is needed: Emergency funding is designed to respond to the immediate. But the need for speed can mean that initiatives are developed without structured consultation. Funders can respond to this challenge by using existing local knowledge – including working with local and national voluntary sector infrastructure bodies – and bringing experience and an open mind.
  • Simple, supportive processes: The funding process needs to be as simple as possible for applicants under severe personal and professional stress. This can be achieved through active outreach; a simplified application process; relationship-building and conversation; light-touch due diligence; swift decision-making; and simple monitoring arrangements.
  • Readiness to manage unexpected challenges: Emergency funding efforts will inevitably hit some unexpected difficulties; these need to be dealt with in a straightforward way by the partners involved. Funders too are operating outside what is normal for them: ‘No-one knows how to do this: the only shield is to be genuinely doing the best we can – and constantly listening and learning so we can do better.’

 

Over the last decade there has been much talk of funders trying to become less burdensome, more straightforward and quicker in their dealings with applicants and grantees. For that to happen, funders need to be ruthlessly clear about the purpose and necessity of their processes. The positive examples that we have seen – those described in The possible, not the perfect and, more recently, in our account of the Tudor Trust’s work in Hartlepool – weren’t rushed or haphazard. The preparation and execution were characterised by care, attention to detail and great sensitivity. But, critically, they were nimble and proportionate, sending a clear signal to others about what is possible when you are prepared to step outside the normal.

 

As part of our own efforts at IVAR to support the voluntary sector and civil society, we will be working alongside funders and their funded organisations over the coming months. We are committed to capturing learning about different responses; if you would like to be part of that, please get in touch with emily@ivar.org.uk.

 

London Funders are coordinating a funder statement on Covid-19, recognising that this outbreak is an exceptional event that will have an impact on civil society groups and to offer reassurance funders stand with the sector during this time. Find out more and sign up here.

 

This blog is jointly hosted by IVAR and London Funders.