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Seeing with an applicant’s eye

15 weeks ago, we proposed five principles to guide funders in rising to the challenge of the unfolding Covid-19 crisis: be bold, be generous, be genuinely flexible, be available, be reassuring


Since then, we have seen genuinely progressive practice. Some have transformed their relationship with grantees, dismantling onerous reporting structures and proactively offering a range of financial and technical support. Others have overhauled their application processes, streamlining application forms, and radically speeding up decision making. More are testing the waters of unrestricted funding. Some have even publicised their willingness to meet fundraising costs in support of the effort to keep going. This new mood of agility, trust and common endeavour points the way to a healthier and more collaborative relationship between funders and the VCSE sector. We have seen what is possible in an emergency.


The challenge now – to both funders and the sector – is to nurture and grow these new behaviours into the future. A future that, as far as the eye can see, is likely to be characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. A future that will require, therefore, sustained commitment to flexibility and creative adaptation. So, it is worrying that some VCSE organisations report signs of wobble and strain, even in the most open and agile of funders. Many of these concerns sit in the detail of application processes, not in the big strategic questions around ‘who we want to fund and why’.


Too much risk is still being delegated: VCSE organisations are dealing with very short application windows for emergency funds, undeclared opening and closing dates, and funds closing early: ‘It’s incredibly undermining. It’s like they think we don’t have to plan because we have nothing else to do’; ‘Honestly, it would be as helpful to ask us to write poem or a short story at the moment as it is to ask us to give a three-year projection’.


Application processes do not reflect the times we are facing: Application forms are losing their internal coherence and slipping out of proportion to the sums of money or the duration of grant:

‘I’ve just finished an application to a major national funder for 18 months funding. There were 18 substantive questions on top of all the usual organisational stuff. That’s a lot in itself. But most questions contained two or three sub-questions. I think I had to answer more than 50 questions in all’.

Many grants remain at least semi-restricted: Many short-term grant offers do look and feel more ‘general’. But not enough funders are offering complete flexibility to adjust in response to changing circumstances without coming back for permission:


‘Everything is changing so fast, the only way to survive and keep our services running is to be flexible. If funders believe we are ethical and competent, why wouldn’t they trust us to spend the money well?’.

Some grants staff are struggling: Even the best of published policies rely on how they are interpreted and implemented by grants staff:

‘All over their website, they talked about trust and flexibility – but the grants officer behaved just like they always do, asking for loads of addition information and insisting that we justify every detail, then not getting back to us when they said they would’.

Criteria don’t seem to be changing and continue not to be shared: Especially in the context of longer-term funding bids, VCSE organisations don’t know how they will be judged. What will be done with their answers to questions about their Covid-19 response: ‘Whatever we write now will be out of date long before any decision is made’. What do funders think a ‘good reserves level’ or ‘sound financial management’ is, in the wake of Covid-19? What are they expecting in terms of forward plans and projections?


Application processes are unwittingly restrictive and unhelpful. Application information is unwieldy or dispersed: ‘I often have to sign up for an account, copy and paste all the application questions into a Word document, then copy in information from several different guidance documents before I can start thinking about whether we can make a strong application’. Online forms are full of fiddly detail that is slow to complete: ‘I get it – funders need to be able to analyse application data. But are they really using all these individual boxes we’re filling in?’  And word limits are too tight: ‘Funders can’t realise how much time is wasted shaving words – we don’t have that time right now’.

Perfection is impossible right now. Like everyone, funders are learning how to live with uncertainty and working hard to adjust day-to-day practices to make the best contribution they can. But, for the foreseeable future, responding better doesn’t call for major strategic reviews or complex analysis and consultation. All it takes is a commitment to see with an applicant’s eye and a willingness to shoulder more of the burden of responding to the current crisis and getting funds out to those who need them most and can use them best. Even the trail blazers amongst foundations can hone their practice. And for those who have struggled to adapt, a few simple changes could make all the difference.


We would suggest five simple and practical ways to help lighten the burden. These actions can help to ensure that the progress made at a moment of crisis is sustained, and that practice doesn’t slip back as we enter an extended period of recovery and renewal.


  1. Drill down into your funding offer so that it is crystal clear. Ask only the questions you need to ask – and test them rigorously for clarity and overlap.
  2. Set achievable timetables – and stick to them. VCSE organisations need to plan too. And speed up your response time. Take the pressure off hard-pressed organisations by taking more on your own shoulders – by, for example, convening additional committee meetings, bringing in more assessment capacity, giving proper feedback to those you turn down.
  3. Think about how to ease the application process – corral your guidance, prune out rarely used data fields from your online forms, test and build in 20% leeway on your word limits, and introduce new, easier ways of hearing from applicants who are already under pressure.
  4. Be open about how applications will be judged. Show your workings and explain why. Invite challenge and consider new ways of making hard choices.
  5. Support your staff well. New behaviours will not take root unless they are properly encouraged and rewarded.


While it may be too soon for definitive answers on longer-term strategy, there is a real opportunity for a more collaborative approach to rethinking the future and, in particular, funding practices, many of which may no longer be fit for purpose. Over the coming months, we’ll be working on a new project with London Funders, a group of eight foundations, and VCSE organisations across the UK to identify opportunities for sustainable adaptations and innovations to funding processes and practices.


We’ve been producing regular briefings on the challenges faced by VCSE leaders, and the questions and opportunities this presents for funders. Read more at

Covid-19: The diary of a small funder

The Sir George Martin Trust is based in Harrogate, North Yorkshire and was established in 1956 by my father-in-law’s uncle who was a prominent Leeds businessman and the Lord Mayor of Leeds. In recent years our grant-making has been focused on capital and core grants to registered charities and churches working in West and North Yorkshire to help improve the lives of mainly vulnerable and disadvantaged local people.


I am also the Co-ordinator of the Yorkshire Funders Forum (YFF) and a trustee of the Leeds Building Society Foundation. This blog gives a snapshot of my experiences during the first weeks of the UK Covid-19 crisis from a small funder’s point of view.


11 March


The number of coronavirus cases is really starting to ramp up in London, but in Yorkshire all seems calm and everyone is carrying on as normal. My trustees encourage me to do as many visits to applicants as possible and today I visited a primary school in inner city Leeds who are part of a music programme.


However, the stock market is plummeting and my trustees are fearful of how much lower our fund’s value may drop and how much we should give out in grants at the March meeting and beyond.


18 March


The situation has changed so drastically in seven days. I’ve always worked at home for the Trust, so no big change there, but my trustees have asked me not to make any further charity visits in order to protect mine and the charities’ health. Having driven around Yorkshire for the past seven years, meeting the most inspiring and dedicated charity workers, I find this difficult to comprehend and feel that surely this will only be for a few weeks?


The YFF steering committee and I have made the difficult decision to postpone our 20 May Spring Conference which is a real blow as these events have happened twice a year, every year since 1992.


It also dawns on me that our cheque payment method for grants is going to cause some real challenges for our grant holders. Luckily our Relationship Manager at the bank agrees to increasing our daily online payment limit within minutes when this would have usually taken weeks to agree and hours of form-filling. Every cloud has a silver lining.


25 March


Lockdown has started and it’s awful to hear about the number of UK deaths and how many lives Covid-19 is destroying.  Our March trustees’ meeting is this week but we’re not able to meet in person so what is the best way for the eight of us to communicate for the meeting? I’ve heard of Zoom but am not convinced that my two trustees in their 80s will be able use this, so decide to set up a good old-fashioned BT conference call account which works well.


The trustees decide that as there are very few ‘normal’ enquiries and applications coming in, for the next few weeks we should give out small £500 Fast Grants to charities and churches in West Yorkshire that are helping on the frontline by delivering food and continuing to support the most vulnerable to get through the crisis. It’s also agreed that we need to ‘meet’ monthly for the short term, as opposed to our usual three times a year, to make sure our grant-making matches up with local charities’ changing needs during the crisis.


1 April


The Fast Grant telephone and email enquiries are coming in nice and steadily. The Fast Grant sub-committee of trustees are doing a brilliant job reviewing the applications I put forward within 24 hours, and then I’m informing the successful applicants and making the grant payments the next day.


8 April


The Fast Grant enquiries and applications are coming in thick and fast now, but it’s just about manageable and being able to provide immediate support, even in a small way, really makes me feel that our Trust is doing our bit to help those most in need.


15 April


We’re getting so many Fast Grant enquires and it’s proving more difficult for the trustees to decide on who to support. We’re now realising this is a bit more complicated than we first thought, and now that the trustees can see the current bank balance on the statement for online payment purposes, this is putting each applicant’s financial position in a whole different light and making it harder for the trustees to agree. It is also felt that some charities are tailoring their requests to fit with our criteria and this isn’t sitting well with some trustees. Who said giving away money was easy?


22 April


The Fast Grant enquires have slowed down and we have another trustee call where it is agreed that the focus of our grant-making from May should shift towards unrestricted Resilience Funding for local charities in order to help them get through the crisis and come out the other side.


After the mad scramble to provide emergency support, it has become clear that what small charities will need for the medium-long term are friendly, flexible funders to turn to who can provide grants to pay for running costs. The Sir George Martin Trust has been here supporting Yorkshire charities for the past 64 years and we are determined that we will play our part in ensuring as many local not-for-profits continue their excellent work for many decades to come.

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 (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


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.