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Communities need flexible funders to influence the public sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Summary of new briefing: Birds in a hurricane

Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, we have spoken to over 1,000 voluntary organisations across our portfolio of research. In every conversation, whatever the focus, we have heard about how small charities, social enterprises and community groups have been coping and adapting.


Along the way, we have been capturing snapshots of the live situation through our regular briefing series, drawing specifically from our peer support sessions for voluntary sector leaders. We have been inspired by individuals, holding their teams and organisations together in the toughest of times. And we have reflected on how funders, in particular, could best support their efforts.


This latest briefing, however, draws material from a wider range of projects – most of which began before the pandemic hit. In early 2020, we were facilitating local, cross-sector health partnerships, and looking at how small charities were using technology, not knowing just how vital these already important and interesting fields would become.


We decided to explore how organisations have survived – and in some cases even thrived – since the pandemic began. And we share the things that we believe will help both voluntary organisations, and those who support them, to sustain and develop their contribution for the longer term.



Leading a small VCSE organisation is a tough job at the best of times: ‘As a CEO, you’re the HR department, the marketing department, the finance department, the operational manager and so on. It’s difficult managing all this and the staff’. But Covid-19 has turned the volume up right across the spectrum: ‘I feel like a bird in a hurricane!’.


Core Funding


Key pressures organisations have faced


  • Funding

  • Increasing/changing demand

  • Going online

  • Taking care of their teams

  • Leadership

Core Funding


Funding. Many funders worked hard to provide emergency funding that supported rapid responses, and to take a light-touch approach; but the pipeline for longer-term applications remains seriously disrupted. 

Core Funding


Increasing/changing demand. Many organisations uncovered new needs. Some transformed their services; others went into a holding pattern, providing what support they could from afar. The sense of never being able to do enough was profound: ‘People in need are falling off the radar’, ‘Our users don’t always cope well with change’. 

Core Funding


Going online. The shortcomings of ‘communicating on squares’ have become clear – from the loss of informal spaces, through to trying to support vulnerable service users, or even mediate conflict, virtually.

Core Funding


Taking care of their teams. The welfare of staff and volunteers has been a pressing concern. To begin with, staff often ‘threw their all into it’, but, as the weeks turned into months, leaders wondered how long staff could ‘survive this intensity’ and keep going.

Core Funding


Leadership. Leaders have had to make ‘tough decisions with no perfect answers’, like whether to develop, flex or close services. There have been multiple balancing acts, for example between the welfare of users and that of staff.

The past year has been a ‘story of extraordinary resilience and adaptation’; a rare, shared period of experimentation and taking risks; and a time when new possibilities and options have sprung up: ‘Learning from the crisis will stand us well in the future’.


So, what has helped VCSE organisations to stay afloat in a period of adversity?


Core Funding


What has it taken to keep going?


  • Collaboration

  • Taking care of staff and volunteers

  • Discovering new ways to connect

  • Responsible, supportive funders

  • Financial cushions

  • A space to share

Core Funding


Collaboration. The need for joined-up thinking’ was pressing. The sense of urgency and shared purpose dissolved many common obstacles. VCSE organisations worked together to share data and enable cross-referral; they felt valued in partnerships for their distinctive reach and contribution; and they found and used a stronger voice.

Core Funding


Taking care of staff and volunteers. From coffee mornings to candle making, leaders found ways to support their teams, and provide spaces for people to unload. Some used furlough funding in a supportive way to respond to individual circumstances; while others benefitted from experienced volunteers on furlough.

Core Funding


Discovering new ways to connect. Going online provided unexpected benefits for many – reaching new people, enabling new conversations, and hearing more diverse voices.

Core Funding


Responsible, supportive funders. Many funders shared risks, relaxed targets and reporting requirements and were active partners, saying: ‘We want you to be responsive to your community needs’.

Core Funding


Financial cushions. Where they had them, reasonable reserves or unrestricted income gave leaders some assurance as they regrouped.

Core Funding


A space to share. Leaders often talked about the isolation of their position. They valued opportunities to reflect, whether that was with their chair, trustees, an external coach (although most were reluctant to spend on support for themselves), or through peer support sessions.

It is clear that the pandemic has both stimulated new thinking and demonstrated the value and workability of approaches to funding and collaboration that VCSE organisations have been advocating for years. The intensity and visibility of need during Covid-19 has accelerated the pace of change, but its foundations feel fragile.


Core Funding


What next? 


We end with reflections on some key questions and challenges that both VCSE organisations and those who support them will need to consider if the transformative capacity of the voluntary sector is to be strengthened and developed to help meet the challenges ahead.

Core Funding


Judging progress. We will all need to learn how to work well with uncertainty – having the confidence to act on the basis of ‘what we think we know right now’, then to look critically at how that went and try to do better.


Embedding joined-up working. Can the collaboration, networks and the trust that have been established survive in the face of new challenges, lack of capacity, resumption of conventional roles and fierce competition for tight budgets?

Core Funding


Blended services and ways of working. We have learnt about the ways technology can help us to work more flexibly, but also about its limits. We will need to take a mixed approach – to how we work, collaborate, and provide services.


Making digital inclusion a reality. Many small VCSE organisations now have both the relationships and practical skills to reach communities so often left behind – but digital exclusion is a problem that needs to be tackled nationally.

Core Funding


New thinking about unrestricted funding and income diversification. Many small VCSE organisations had turned to trading and donations to achieve flexibility – but both have been hit hard by the pandemic. A greater shift to unrestricted funding is urgently needed. VCSE organisations can then focus on listening to their communities and implementing solutions based on what they need. 

Core Funding


Embedding a more responsive, agile, proportionate and trusting approach to funding. Anything that funders can do to lighten the fundraising and reporting load and to share the burden of risk makes an immediate and tangible difference to small VCSE organisations.


Organisational health and wellbeing. When resources are tight and demand is pressing, it can be hard to create time and space to ‘look after our people’. The pandemic has shown just how vital this time is.

Core Funding


Mutual aid. Many small VCSE organisations benefitted from the surge in community spirit at the outset of the pandemic. How can they retain volunteers and maintain good safeguards, while also avoiding disproportionate red tape, regulation and formalisation?


User voice. Small and medium-sized VCSE organisations have a distinctive and vital contribution to make to the debate over ‘what next?’. How can they best be supported in giving voice to their users? And how can their own contribution be kept in the public eye?  

We have all been affected by the pandemic. It has upended our lives, both at home and at work. Across our families and our organisations, we see exhausted and anxious faces. And the uncertainty isn’t over. At such a moment, there needs to be a premium on patience and kindness, and a concerted effort to bring imagination and empathy to our work. If the last year has taught us anything, it is that voluntary organisations have these qualities in abundance; and that if they are trusted and respected, they will deliver for those they exist to serve.


Click here to read the full briefing, Birds in a hurricane


Photo by Fer Nando on Unsplash.

Four lessons for funders from a complex and uncertain year

One year ago, on 9th April 2020, we published The pressures of uncertainty – the first of fifteen Covid-19 briefings for funders, based on our peer support sessions for the leaders of small to medium VCSE organisations across the UK. Having heard from more than 500 leaders, we offer four reflections on what matters most in how funders go forward.


  1. Think and act strategically

The coronavirus emergency created the imperative – and the freedom – for funders to be responsive, flexible, and agile. But it has also shortened our horizons. And many of us are now looking at how we can retain the creativity of the emergency, in the urgently needed shift back to longer-term planning cycles.


VCSE organisations and funders alike face hard decisions about strategy and priorities. Extreme uncertainty is now a fact of life, and the challenges facing all social purpose organisations as the longer-term implications of Covid-19 take hold are immense. And yet, over the last twelve months, we have seen that you can achieve a lot when things are difficult and changeable: if you move beyond simply having a strategy, to thinking and acting strategically. 


This starts with being clear about your purpose, focus, and underlying values. The essential – and often neglected – next step is making sure that all of your systems and practices are aligned with these commitments, not working against them. Finally, it calls for a willingness throughout the organisation to live with complexity and uncertainty, and act anyway – to let go of the fallacy of certainty and give up the fruitless search for measures and metrics that prove impact, committing instead to an agile and iterative way of learning, that supports informed judgments about making a better contribution.


You can read more about how the idea of alignment can help to navigate uncertainty here.


  1. Recognise how much ‘how you do it’ matters

Without your support, good organisations doing work that you care about will be lost. This is what risk looks like now – not about knowing every detail about an organisation or exactly how every penny of your funds is being spent. There is a pressing need to bring day-to-day grant assessment and grant management practices in line with the new realities. And to ensure that they respect and build on the strengths of VCSE organisations that have been so evident over the last year.  


This emergency has shown us that lighter, more flexible, more trusting processes are possible. The powerful message from VCSE organisations is that it is time to make these changes widespread and permanent. And that doing so will enable better work – during an emergency and beyond. A growing movement of funders is responding to this call to action, determined to move beyond words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – and translate them into visible, tangible, durable changes to behaviour and practice. To find out more and be part of this effort, visit


  1. Support the voices of VCSE organisations

It is easy to feel overwhelmed by the social, economic, and environmental impact of Covid-19, and the deep structural and material inequalities it has exposed. But VCSE organisations are well-placed and eager to be part of the collective effort to tackle them. Close to the ground and to the individuals and communities that are at the sharp end of economic recession and accelerating social change, their voices – and the voices of the people they serve – must be part of the debate about what happens next. You can support their participation – by reserving some funds to support advocacy and campaigning work; creating spaces for hard pressed front-line organisations to get their heads above water and share what they know; and using your leverage and brokerage to provide a platform from which the sector’s contribution and voice can be amplified and championed.


  1. Make your thinking visible

Closer to home, you can open your policy and practice to the influence of others, by making your thinking more visible, and by seeking out and hearing diverse and dissenting voices, ready to say when practices are falling behind the curve of front-line experience. Making our own messy, imperfect thinking visible is what humility looks like in practice. It invites in people with alternative views on the world and with different interpretations of what’s happening, so that we can make meaning together about what we’re seeing and what it suggests we should do next. The more you can make your own thinking visible and invite others to do the same, the better we will all move towards transformational learning that helps us to understand what’s needed. And make our best contribution to delivering it.

Measuring what matters: Valuing the voluntary sector in East Sussex

How do you want to be judged? By how much you earn? By your kindness and humanity? It’s not an easy question to answer. By the same token, it is difficult to determine the best way to value the voluntary, community and social enterprise (VCSE) sector. Despite the social and environmental contribution of the VCSE sector, there’s an overriding tendency to value it in standard economic terms. In this short blog, we argue that perhaps we need to think more carefully about what we choose to measure.

Valuing the VCSE in East Sussex


Earlier this year, IVAR was commissioned by East Sussex County Council to research the social and economic value of the county’s VCSE sector. The Council wanted to understand the scale, scope, and contribution of the sector. As we discuss below, arriving at reliable economic valuations was far from easy. Nevertheless, we made the following estimates about the VCSE sector in East Sussex:

  • Over 3,500 organisations
  • Generates an economic gross value added of at least £76m
  • Employs at least 6,000 people, roughly equivalent to 3% of the county’s workforce
  • Harnesses £110m from volunteers contributing 9.6m hours per annum, equivalent to a workforce of 6,000 full-time workers

Numbers like these are useful. They give us a feel for the size and significance of the VCSE sector. They remind policy-makers that civil society should be taken seriously. However, they also need to be interpreted with care.




There are significant challenges in estimating the economic value of the VCSE sector. Government data rarely separately identifies VCSE organisations. Furthermore, a large number of small, local voluntary organisations are not registered with their regulators, often because their income falls below registration thresholds. As such, we have to make educated guesses about the size and scale of ‘below the radar’ organisations.

The issue of ‘below the radar’ organisations is especially significant because the vast majority of VCSE organisations are small. We estimate that over half of the VCSE organisations in East Sussex have an income of less than £25,000. Much of the value of volunteering (calculated from survey data) resides in these organisations, yet we cannot readily identify them all.




Valuing small voluntary organisations in economic terms has an air of nonsense about it. When we think about voluntary organisations, is economic productivity really what comes to mind first? Are VCSE organisations best understood by their monetary value? As part of our East Sussex research, we have spoken to various local voluntary organisations. It seems clear to us that, while there is economic value in what these organisations do, there is other more significant value. For example, there is enormous value in the social relationships that form in and around local voluntary organisations. There is value in the trust that forms through participation. There is a value in the way that VCSE organisations help people to feel better.


Reconceptualizing VCSE value


It is important that the VCSE sector can articulate its value in ways other than economic terms. Civil society is distinctive and should be proud of its unique contribution. We need to articulate how VCSE organisations contribute to what is beneficial and important in our lives.

Measures of wellbeing offer one potential alternative to understanding the contribution of voluntary organisations. Measuring wellbeing takes us away from an emphasis on productivity and consumption, towards an understanding of our happiness and life satisfaction. That said, there are challenges in measuring wellbeing and establishing causal relationships between VCSE activity and improved wellbeing. Wellbeing measures may also not suit every situation.

What is important varies with context and perspective. For example, the way an environment group improves our enjoyment of the natural world may differ from the way a youth charity builds the confidence of young people. Thus, the assertion of value becomes a judgment as to what is important and beneficial in our lives.



Measuring the contribution of the VCSE sector is incredibly hard.  We can place economic values on it, but perhaps this does it a disservice. The VCSE sector provides fabric to many people’s lives and surely deserves to valued on its own terms. So, rather than looking at estimates of economic worth, let’s be bolder in asserting the value of VCSE organisations according to what is important and beneficial in our lives.

In the next stage of our work in East Sussex, we will holding a Share & Build Share & Build event on Thursday 17th  December. We will share initial findings from the research and provide  an opportunity for organisations in East Sussex to add further insights and discuss these with colleagues from across the VCSE and public sectors. For more information about this work or to join on the 17th of December, please contact

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.

My Volunteering Experience during Covid

Tahmed shares his experience of volunteering at Birmingham Children’s Hospital during Covid-19. The hospital is part of a network of 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018. 


Who am I? My name is Tahmed and I’m an 18 year old student from Birmingham. I’m currently in my 2nd year of college, studying a BTEC in Emergency Services and I hope to join one of the emergency services sometime in the future. In my free time I like to volunteer at Birmingham Children’s Hospital.


So where do I start, here’s a bit of a background on my volunteering journey: I’ve volunteered at the trust for just over 18 months; I was initially interested in volunteering as I wanted to take my passion of helping people to the next level and I thought what better place to start helping people than within an NHS children’s hospital.


YPAG: I joined the trust as a volunteer in February of 2019 with my first role being a member of YPAG (Young Persons’ Advisory Group). YPAG is the service user/youth group at Birmingham Children’s Hospital where the group do a multitude of things such as: being panellists on interview panels, expressing the opinions of young people and teaching medical staff how to effectively engage with young people, to name a few things!


YAV programme: A few months later (August 2019) I decided to take on a second voluntary role within the hospital, this time as a volunteer on the YAV (Young Adult Volunteer) programme. As a YAV I would regularly engage with patients and families on wards across 3 different placements over 6 months. I completed the YAV programme in February of 2020 whilst also being involved in a variety of YPAG projects throughout that period as well. It was just a few weeks after I had completed the YAV programme, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit.


The effects of Covid-19 on my volunteering experience: When the Covid-19 lockdown started, all volunteering opportunities in the Trust were put on hold. However, a few months into the lockdown, a handful of new volunteering opportunities began to slowly open up. These roles were completely different to the volunteering opportunities available pre-Covid-19.


I took up one of the roles which was a Meet and Greet Screening Volunteer, where I supported a member of staff at the front of house at Birmingham Children’s hospital. My responsibilities were to:


  • Screen visitors and patients before they came into the hospital to ensure they had no symptoms of Covid-19.
  • Provide visitors with a face mask if they didn’t have one of their own.
  • Direct visitors to their desired destination for appointments, consultations etc.
  • Help visitors with any general enquiries.
  • Be that friendly first point of contact for patients and visitors.

How I’ve found the role: The screening role has been varied. It’s been; fun, challenging, busy, funny, and hectic at times but above all an amazing opportunity! It’s also been a great learning experience and I’ve found that my general knowledge of the hospital and its services has improved immensely. I’ve also met loads of different staff members/medical students from different departments and faculties and have built a really good relationship with many of them.  The highlight of my role has to be the positive interactions that I’ve had with patients, families and staff.


Challenges I have faced: One of the regular challenges that I’ve faced is that I’ve had to inform parents/guardians about the “one adult with one patient” rule and, understandably, they’ve had their frustrations about it. These situations made me realise that on many occasions you can help people understand something from your perspective by simply being empathetic towards their situations and articulating your points in a calm and respectful manner. Most of the time people ended up respecting the rules and went about the situation in the right way because of it.


Skills that I have improved on:

  • Self-Discipline: I’ve had to have self-discipline to wake up really early in the morning for more than half of my screening shifts.
  • Empathy:  Empathy has been vital in communicating and engaging with people.
  • Adaptability: Things in the hospital continue to change on a regular basis, because of this, I’ve learnt how to adapt effectively in different situations.
  • Communication and Confidence:  My communication and confidence skills have improved a lot, I have done over 100 hours of volunteering in the Covid-19 period to date and have spoken to hundreds of people.


You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here

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.