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This is what applying for funding feels like

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Introduction from IVAR

 

Much has been written about how funders acted differently in the context of the pandemic. Funded organisations have celebrated lighter touch processes, faster turnaround of grant decisions, recognition of uncertainty and the need to adapt – even the topsy-turvy scenario of being offered funding without asking for it. There is a strong desire from all concerned to retain these practical changes. However, alongside this and with much less attention, grant applicants are still carrying the burden of rejection after rejection, often receiving little or no feedback, unable to connect with funders as they would like. The experience of applying for funding still has some way to go to ensure it’s a mutually respectful process operating on a more level playing field. 

 

This is what we heard when we asked 22 charities about their experiences of applying for funding, as part of our open and trusting grant-making initiative. Whilst almost everyone recognised the positive changes through Covid-19, many still talked about the emotional rollercoaster generated by unsuccessful applications: the stress and self-doubt, the fear and inability to understand what is really needed for success. This blog, in the words of grant applicants themselves, offers an insight into these feelings. We ended by asking ‘what would make it feel better’? Some of the answers are surprisingly simple and return to the concepts of respectful, open and trusting grant-making. 


‘Exciting’, ‘rewarding’, ‘creative’

 

As grant applicants, we are incredibly passionate about the work we do. Writing grant applications is part of the fun and challenge of our job; successfully applying for funding helps our organisations to fulfil their mission and support the communities we serve.

 

However, for every successful application we make, there are many more that have been rejected.

 


Dealing with rejection

 

We know funders receive large volumes of applications and have to make tough choices but dealing with rejection can be immensely disappointing. We feel that we’re letting our organisations down, as well as our team and colleagues. You can feel responsible for the success of the entire organisation. It’s embarrassing having to tell colleagues ‘we didn’t get it’ – people’s jobs and our work for beneficiaries is at stake.

 

One of the most frustrating things is that you rarely get any communication from funders. To put so much work into an application that you get really excited about, but not receive any feedback, is incredibly difficult. It makes you question your skills and whether that funder will ever be right for you.

 

 

Maintaining resilience and wellbeing

 

Learning how to manage rejection and build resilience is a key part of how we persevere. Having a stable team and support network is vital in helping you manage the emotions that come up when applying for funding.

 

It’s not always as simple as picking up the phone to ask why an application didn’t make it through. The power dynamics make that hard, and you don’t always know the rules. It’s like that feeling you get as a teenager, plucking up the courage to call someone you wanted to ask out. You’d dial the number but hang up at the last minute as you were scared they’d say no.

 

 

Things can change because things have changed during this pandemic

 

We have seen greater flexibility from funders, with offers of emergency or unrestricted funding, and relationships more likely to be characterised by trust and open communication.

 

Having more positive relationships has allowed us to be more honest about our struggles, and clearer about the support we need.

 

However, with things beginning to open up again and emergency funding coming to an end, we are still in a period of deep uncertainty. While we are grateful that funders showed so much compassion and flexibility during the pandemic, we are fearful that this behaviour won’t continue – things may be slowly going to back normal, but we’re not out of the woods yet!

 

 

What would make it feel better?

 

Applying for funding needs to be a mutually beneficial experience but at the moment it often feels one-sided. Current application and assessment processes can bring up feelings of dejection and failure, but in the best cases they can be incredibly rewarding. There will be no ‘one size fits all’ approach – what suits some organisations may not suit others – but we know that open and honest communication is crucial whatever the process looks like.

 

We’d like to see more of a balance between the needs of charities applying and the funders receiving applications – so that there is less of a burden on either.

 

Here are five things that funders can do to help:

 

  1. Continue the flexible, open and trusting funding practices that many adopted during the pandemic – clear criteria, core or unrestricted funding and light-touch forms all make a big difference.
  2. Be more transparent with eligibility criteria and share decision-making processes.
  3. Consider different requirements depending on the size of grant. For example, be open to different types of applications (e.g. video applications), use publicly held information (e.g. financial information from the charity commission) and only ask relevant questions.
  4. Ringfence funding to support specific groups or communities (e.g. small charities, community-led groups, ethnically diverse charities). Smaller organisations and those that support marginalised communities are often competing with larger organisations that have more resource and a paid fundraising team. Ringfencing funding could help.
  5. Create opportunities for open dialogue. Sometimes it feels like funders exist behind computers. Being able to talk honestly, even if we’re told that our application has been unsuccessful, is a sign of a good funder who we may want to develop a relationship with in the future.

A last word from IVAR

 

In the rush and sheer volume of applications received, it might be easy to forget there’s a person behind the application form and that how funders acknowledge, feedback and communicate decisions has a real impact on how applicants experience the process. Grant applicants are passionate people who care deeply about the work they do they and know that it’s not possible to develop in-depth relationships with all funders or be successful every time. But following through on some simple commitments to a more open process, where feedback is standard and relationships easier to navigate, would go a long way to level up the power imbalance. Our aim must surely be to remove words like ‘scary’, ‘frightening’ ‘stressful’ and ‘frustrating’ from people’s experience.  

 

The next stage of this research will explore how a small group of funders are trying to bring the principles of trust and respect to life in their applications and assessments processes.


 

This blog is based on the experiences of 22 charities based across the UK, including: 
Logos of charities who have co-signed the blog.

From isolation to opportunity – my story of adapting to Covid

What a surreal eerie time the last eight months have been and I can’t say I’m getting more used to it.  As an academic and Director of the Irish Institute for Catholic Studies (IICS), a tiny organisation based in Mary Immaculate College, Limerick, the changes Covid-19 has brought to my work and personal life have been enormous – just like for everyone else. It’s so counterintuitive not to reach out to people; my kids’ grandad is 90 and they haven’t hugged him in nine long months.

 

At the beginning, my work life seemed frozen and still. My desk in the third-level college where I worked was deserted and eight months later remains untouched, exactly as I left it at the end of March. The plans I had been making evaporated overnight. The IICS was about to host a Seminar on Sikhism with the City Council and months of work was cancelled in minutes. A public exhibition of images due to be launched the week of lockdown is now lost between hope and memory. The virus pulled the plug on the schedule of public face-to-face lectures we’d planned for 2020, on various seminars and fieldtrips with students and forthcoming conferences. I was reeling and perplexed. That feeling of isolation and solitude wasn’t good. I imagined that I’d just have to do desk-based research until the virus was gone. It was deeply shocking to be so powerless overnight and for all certainties to be erased.

That feeling of isolation and solitude wasn’t good.

As the weeks dragged on I was offered an opportunity for support from IVAR – to chat to a small group of people in the UK who were leading organisations and charities. The initial meeting online with the group of 9 or so people was a real turning point for me. In the first meeting we all spoke about our work, our reactions to Covid and how we were trying to lead our organisations. I was amazed to hear dynamic, energetic peers speak of the adaptations they had already made to continue their vital work. Charities serving people in crisis could not pause. The peer session was conversational, natural, easy, honest and profound. The participants were passionate about their organisations. They showed ingenuity and creativity in the way they quickly adapted their diverse practices, supported their staff, addressed the acute needs of the people they served, all while socially distanced or online in accordance with government regulations.

The peer session was conversational, natural, easy, honest and profound. 

Prior to this peer mentoring I had never heard of any of these amazing organisations and I’m certain they had never heard of mine! Yet these regular monthly peer sessions became a real opportunity for solidarity and a window into a world of possibility. People were honest about their worries, the financial strain, and their fears. In those sessions we spoke spontaneously about day-to-day matters that arose as the pandemic continued to unfold. The need to keep going despite huge challenges, the pros and cons of working from home, the difficulties of connecting with and meeting the urgent needs of people in the community, the challenge of keeping positive and focused when energy levels and morale is low, the immediate need to access funding. Even the things that kept us awake at night. Pretty quickly I realised that Covid was a watershed. There was no going back. As the Greek Philosopher Heraclitus wisely noted, nobody can step into the exact same place in a river twice. The old ways were gone.

I realised that Covid was a watershed. There was no going back.

In the early days of lockdown I hadn’t used technology very much at all. Zoom and Teams were not my best friends. Skype was a rare feature in my life. Through learning from my peers in the IVAR group, I began to see the possibilities for changing my thinking about my organisation and my role within its development. A pivotal moment was when I heard one leader speak of the importance of providing confidential counselling online and of the potency of technology to support life-saving online dialogue with people who were vulnerable and isolated during Covid. As I listened to others speak of the ways they’d adapted their schedules and repurposed their budgets, it led me to a complete flip.  I’d been viewing Covid as this terrible threat. During the conversations with my IVAR peer group, I began to grasp that this new Covid-time could also be seen as an opportunity. I could see the potential of trying to contribute something positive to the transformed world. The challenge was to see if there were new and creative ways to do what I once did, albeit very differently.

During the conversations with my IVAR peer group, I began to grasp that this new Covid-time could also be seen as an opportunity. 

Technology has meant that the IICS cannot only continue our work but that we can focus on growing it for a new world. We are hosting our events online and have a new schedule for the autumn semester. We have people joining our events from across the UK, Uganda, the South of France, the USA, Ethiopia to name just a few. In June, instead of cancelling our annual retreat with the Benedictine monks in Glenstal Abbey in Limerick, we decided to move it online. It was a lot of work, but we got 5 times the number of participants we normally have on the day (250 instead of 50) and we also recorded the event so that people can still access it.

 

We all know that the pandemic has brought so many negatives. However, it has also given us great opportunities if we stay positive and try to be flexible. As John Henry Newman said ‘to live is to change’. We are working on making the most of the changes Covid has visited on us in the belief that this time is precious. We can survive and we can thrive.

 


90 minute sessions for leaders of charities, community organisations and social enterprises. 


Join a supportive community of leaders trying to adapt, innovate and do their best. Share experiences, challenges and opportunities – it’s a safe space to offload and a time to pause and reflect.

 

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6 reflections on collaboration during Covid-19

Since April, over 70 leaders from healthcare, VCSE and local authorities have joined IVAR and SEUK-run peer support groups, sharing experiences and thoughts on cross-sector partnership working in healthcare settings during the pandemic. Last week, we hosted the fourth meeting in this series. Here we discuss the current challenges and pressures highlighted by those attending.

1. Identifying priorities for the next six months

The participants listed a focus on recovery as top of the list. Many said that the response to the pandemic has improved relationships across sectors and meant that planning is now a more collaborative process than it was before.

We’ve worked more in partnership with our counterparts than before.’


‘These last three months have been about relationships and communications and we’d like to keep it this way and focus on making this our new normal for the next 6 to 12 months.’

A social prescribing professional was concerned that their services might be used in the wrong way, or be seen as a solution to a different problem if they weren’t very clear ‘who they are for but also trying to increase the referrals and to make it possible for community groups to refer to social prescribing’.


2. Addressing health inequalities and the digital challenge

The switch to digital and virtual healthcare support has made stark the impact for those without access to digital access. One participant spoke about how they have been contacting local community networks and the voluntary sector to reach those left behind by the digital divide. This has led to good relationships being built: ‘It is important to join up with these networks and have conversations and partnerships with them, when you are trying to respond to a crisis like Covid-19’.

 

Secondly with the amount of support being provided in this way, many organisations and services had introduced new, more frequent ways of engaging with users. Whilst this has been welcomed by users, it has become overwhelming and exhausting for providers. Organisations are assessing how to continue to work this way and how to balance this with face-to-face support.  

 

3. Supporting not squashing local community action

Many were keen to support the new micro/hyper local groups and mutual aid systems that have emerged as a huge source of community strength and cohesion over the last few months. At the same time, they are aware of the potentially negative impact on drive and reach that can be caused by over control of local voluntary service councils or ‘professionalisation’.

 

Wirral CVS was able to share some excellent examples of the approach they had taken to supporting local mutual aid groups. Including connecting with groups, but standing back and only offering advice and support when needed. 

 

4. Finding time and space to assess impact

 

Working at pace and re-designing services at speed to support users has meant evaluation and assessing impact hasn’t been at the forefront of many people’s minds. Many commissioners and funders had responded to the emergency by reducing reporting requirements for funded services and organisations. One participant explained they are not thinking about impact yet, being still in the response phase, but are starting to look at recovery and realise that it’s going to be tough.

We are having to fight fires while watching our house burning down.’

At the moment it seems like local charities are just making an impact with the hope that they can assess it at a later stage. However, there is increasing demand from NHS England and NHS Improvement and others to understand what has worked and what systems and new ways of working would be helpful to adopt and retained in a recovery phase.

5. Recording impact with qualitative data and stories

A social prescriber described how she had been encouraging her colleagues to write up the case studies and stories of people they have been supporting during Covid-19 as a way of keeping the individuals at the centre of thinking, both for them and their commissioners. This approach struck a chord with the webinar group, along with the impact of simply documenting what has, and is, taking place. What is ‘normal’ is changing on a daily basis. It was noted how important it is to document this, to capture the new ways of working and support arguments for not slipping back into previous less successful approaches, systems and relationships. Furthermore, some commissioner’s mindsets are changing and becoming more open to hearing individual case studies and patient’s experiences.

 

‘Our commissioners have actually said that they want to hear more case studies than statistics! So, our quarterly reports now have a reasonable amount of case studies and I think commissioners are seeing this as the way forward.’

 

One CCG has a slot for ‘patient voice/experience’ at board meetings and sees the current digital transformation as a valuable as a way of engaging more people with the meetings in order to hear more directly from those experiencing care.

 

It feels like progress is being made if these reflective practices are being adopted more widely and those with lived experience of conditions and care are being put at the centre of decisions and planning. 

 

6. The challenges on the horizon

 

It is worth noting that these conversations and discussions are taking place against a backdrop of uncertainty particularly in statutory sector funding. Many local authorities are nearing bankruptcy making it difficult for them to support anything other than essential services and the NHS will not be able to ‘reset’ back to pre-Covid-19 levels of service and care quickly. It is increasingly important that local areas and their communities are able to leverage the full extent of their local assets, knowledge and experience through collaboration across the sectors.

If you would like to access support for cross-sector partnership in health and care: 

 

  • The next and final peer support session will take place in September 2020. Email nancy.towers@socialenterprise.org.uk to register your interest. 
  • The Building Health Partnership’s programme will host a virtual national conference, sharing best practice and developing relationships in the late Autumn, email vanessa@ivar.org.uk to register your interest.
  • You can register for a 1-2-1 coaching session with Mark Doughty from The King’s Fund 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 www.ivar.org.uk/covid-19-briefings

Acting locally in the Covid-19 era

Covid-19 has been like a viral version of globalisation. It’s the import and export of a deadly virus that pays no respect to national borders. So what’s local community action got to do with an international pandemic?

At a national level, of course, we have needed to mobilise the public sector, most notably the NHS. At a personal level, social media has provided ways for us to communicate with friends, family and colleagues across continents. But has the pandemic either stimulated – or stifled – local community action?

At one level, helping a neighbour with shopping; waving through the window to someone in isolation; sticking up a poster about a Mutual Aid scheme; all represent important contributions to our local communities. We could think of these as individual civic acts. Alongside this, mobilising our contacts with voluntary, community and co-operative organisations in our towns and villages has also been crucial. Local community action has an important complementary role to play in the current crisis but it also faces challenges.

Vulnerable people hardest hit

First, it’s important to note that community groups were already providing frontline support to people before the crisis. For example, they may have offered support or advocacy to people who were homeless or living in overcrowded temporary hostels; to undocumented migrants who encountered barriers to accessing health care; and to people on low incomes who relied on food banks to survive.

Second, it’s worth recognising that local groups have encouraged the associational life that is so important for mental wellbeing and local engagement. Over the last months most community centres have necessarily remained closed. These were places where people might learn yoga, drama or juggling; or organise and advocate for local needs; or provide places to socialise and meet friends. These are not frontline emergency services. But they may be vital locations for fostering mutual support and wellbeing.

Practitioner Voices

Let’s take two examples. At one community centre, in a densely packed neighbourhood in the south, volunteers have been regularly cleaning the garden as a convivial social space. Janet, one of the trustees, pointed out that the centre’s normal activities had ceased following government guidance several months earlier but ‘we have kept the garden open for local residents with strict rules on social distancing’. They rely ‘purely on room hire and fundraising activities’. At present ‘there is no income coming in’ and ‘we don’t get grants’. 

Meanwhile, a community centre on a new-build estate, have been operating an independent food bank. Sam, a committee member, underlined that health, housing and food were ‘the most basic aspects of life’. In this locality, ‘most people coming to food banks are on universal credit’ and, according to Sam, they are ‘self employed on low incomes that aren’t sufficient to cover their costs’. Their policy was that there would be no means test. Meanwhile, donations of money are preferred – rather than odd combinations of non-nutritious items – so that quality food can be distributed.

For him, the reason that Covid-19 had been such a disaster was because ‘for many people affordable secure housing, sufficient nutritious food and decent access to health services was already not part of their world’.

These two vignettes illustrate some modest but important examples of responses to the effects of Covid-19 by local community groups as well as indications of their own organisational fragility. Certainly, Public Health England’s (2020) [1] examination of the pandemic points to the higher risk faced by older people, Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups, as well as for those living in deprived areas or in medical and menial employment roles. Local community action groups work closely with many of these groups.

The Outlook

It seems a different era since headlines on the 31st January 2020 read ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’ [2]. For analysts such as John Gray [3], the arrival of the virus did not represent ‘a shift to small-scale localism’ however he argued that ‘…the hyperglobalisation of the last few decades is not coming back either.’ Gray’s analysis holds echoes of Paul Hirst’s [4] ideals of a local or regional associationalism that sought democratised private and public agencies.

The important support roles of local community action can easily be overlooked. Their multiple voices need to be heard in any post-Covid reappraisals of our social and economic structures. Their practical, social and convivial roles remain a vital contribution at the local level.


References

[1] Public Health England (2020) Disparities in the risk and outcomes of COVID-19, London: PHE publications.

 

[2] Burgess, K. (2020) ‘First case of Corona virus confirmed’, The Times; 31 Jan, 2020. https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/world-health-chiefs-declare-coronavirus-is-global-emergency-9pc9jkkfk.

 

[3] Gray, J. (2020) ‘Why this crisis is a turning point in history’, New Statesman; 1/4/2020.

 

[4] Hirst, P. (1994) Associative Democracy. New forms of economic and social governance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

NB Names of those interviewed are anonymised at respondents’ request.

Six ways VCSE leaders are adapting to Covid-19

Over the past 11 weeks, we’ve hosted peer support sessions for over 180 VCSE leaders across the UK. We’re publishing regular briefings about the challenges they are facing; we’ve also heard much about how these are being overcome.

In celebration of Small Charity Week, we wanted to share six ways in which VCSE leaders are adapting.

  1. Actively managing staff and volunteer welfare, by encouraging them to:

 

  • Take some time off
  • Build self-care into the working day
  • Find opportunities for social connection (e.g. daily quizzes, sharing a favourite book or photo weekly)
  • Keep a diary
  • Adopt a more flexible working pattern
  • Introduce a buddy system across the team to ensure people have someone they can check-in with regularly

 

In cases where staff have been furloughed, finding ways to include them so that they remain motivated and are aware of key organisational decisions/changes:

 

  • Inviting them to take part in remote team meetings
  • Rotating furloughed staff to reduce the emotional impact of not being at work
  • Swapping furloughed staff between peer organisations for skill sharing and volunteering purposes – informally or through Furlonteer, which has been set up to connect furloughed staff with charities who need their expertise and time

 

  1. Setting boundaries

Continuity of service provision – now or when restrictions ease – is the intended goal for most organisations, along with responding to the increasing needs of their beneficiaries. However, VCSE leaders are trying to set clear parameters when it comes to service adaptation to ensure they do not step too far away from their original mission, and that they have the appropriate capacity and skills to deliver: ‘Focus on what you’re good at and do as much of it as you can’.

 

For some, this is clear cut. Others are finding themselves ‘tip-toeing’ into new or altered activities (e.g. evening and weekend shifts), leading to deeper questions about organisational boundaries and, at times, the need to review charitable objectives: ‘We had one trustee say “you can’t do that”.  But we said “we have to do this to support people”. This might be something people have to think about – changing charitable objects’.

 

  1. Scenario planning

 

As things remain unclear and are constantly changing, many leaders are turning to scenario planning as a way of fulfilling their dual role of strategist and visionary. This ensures that long-term implications are being acknowledged without committing to a particular course of action, continuing to ‘take each day as it comes’

 

‘It’s important to not be over-planning for the future as we are still in uncertain times. Planning for what’s important for now, and what’s pointless for now is also as important.’

 

  1. Working together

Leaders are recognising that, by coming together to collaborate with partners, they can effectively coordinate services and strengthen the sector’s voice to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on organisations, communities and individuals:   

 

‘A natural reaction is to focus internally, but from experience, partnership working is a lifeline and will keep us afloat.’

 

 ‘All of this needs to be done with the thinking and humility that we’re all in the same boat and none of us have the perfect answer.’

 Examples include:

 

  • Signposting to alternate provision
  • Advocating for the needs of particular groups (e.g. the homelessness sector working with the Greater London Authority to address housing need)
  • Supporting people who they wouldn’t usually, because they know that the organisation who normally does this is inundated

 

  1. Listening

Some are investing time in actively listening to the changing needs of their beneficiaries, either through specific surveys or via ad hoc interactions.  This intelligence is being used to help shape organisations’ own responses as well as to ‘actually see what’s happening so that we have some data we can go back to government with … and say “some of the solutions you need to put in place are xyz”’.

 

  1. Talking to funders

VCSE leaders are having honest, open conversations with funders about what can and can’t be delivered, and what impact this will have on outcomes for existing grants and contracts.  While much of this has been initiated and enabled by funders themselves, it feels important to note the courage and clarity it requires from VCSE leaders to be able to make these decisions, and to articulate what is possible when under extreme pressure.

 

__________

 

For the foreseeable future, VCSE leaders will be called on to continually review and reshape their work – in line with shifting government guidance and increasing understanding of what existing and prospective beneficiaries need: ‘No one knows how to feel or respond at the moment. There is no right or wrong way to support people’.

 

In this context, VCSE leaders are remaining steadfast: holding their nerve; making clear, resolute decisions; balancing optimism with realism; and doing everything possible to protect the welfare and motivation of their workforce to ensure they can continue to deliver high quality – albeit slightly altered – services to those who need them most. 

What would enable a sustained transformation in cross-sector working in the long term?

Recognising the tremendous pressure that health, VCSE and local authority leaders are under as a result of the Covid-19 outbreak, IVAR and SEUK are facilitating online peer support groups through their Practice Development Network[i] (PDN), which supports cross-sector partnership working in healthcare settings. The aim is to create a space for people to share experience thoughts and learning, during the pandemic at a time of pressure on the health system for those working navigating and delivering in partnership.

We find them a fascinating snapshot of hope and perseverance, and it is brilliant to see connections being made in real time that can help unblock a challenging situation, in another region.

We were joined by 20 cross-sector health and care leaders on 21st May for our two virtual peer support sessions. They were from different parts of England including: Bedfordshire, Luton and Milton Keynes; Dorset; Surrey Heartlands, Northamptonshire; Worcestershire; Liverpool; Leeds; Stoke-on-Trent; Nottinghamshire; Lancashire and South Cumbria; Northumberland; and London.

 

Please join us for the next peer support session on 24th June


Building trust rapidly

It was interesting to hear the positive stories that people shared about the speed and flexibility in their processes to re-designed or developed their services to cope with the new way of working for their varied service users. For example, a mental health support service is now being run digitally and is having more interaction with people than before when it was a drop-in, face-to-face service.  Not only had this made a huge difference to many people, in some cases preventing suicide, it also offers solutions to those in rural areas facing transport issues. ‘People tend to enjoy a bit more anonymity on the call, especially those we have less motivation to physically take themselves to the clinic.’

Key to this was a change in focus from box checking governance to pursuing relationships based on trust, and an assumption by all partners that people would do the ‘right thing’. This was something that all wanted to hold onto, to sustain as areas began to look at their priorities for starting up services that had been suspended to cope with Covid-19.


‘There is a massive desire amongst a few of us to keep pushing cross-sector working.’

‘We need to take time to pause and reflect, the good stuff that is going on and plan to continue this in the future.’


Long term versus short term

This is where discussion turned to barriers in cross-sector working and how to support systems’ need to see past immediate priorities –  of catching up with waiting lists – and not ignoring equally important projects that seek to address longer-term issues through community resilience. This is the paradox that for some areas the experience of the last two to three months have made this incredibly easy, and convinced leaders within their ICS or system that prioritising community resilience and supporting the VCSE to be an equal partner in this is key, while others have drawn up the metaphorical drawbridge and have even less time and money for approaches of this kind.

It is often about the art of the possible, and perhaps this is where sharing experiences and learning is even more important, if people can see others taking a different approach, it can lead to adopting different ways of working.  


Using data to embed social prescribing and tackle health inequalities

This was further emphasized by a case study in North Dorset, shared by Dr Simone Yule. She leads on Population Health Management (PHM)[ii] for the ICS. North Dorset previously received support from NHS England and Improvement to develop their PHM skills and data. Dr Yule shared how they were using this approach to managing data to ensure those most in need during the pandemic were getting the support that they needed. Being able to search their Practice data for people with a number of underlying health conditions that might make them more vulnerable to Covid-19, and were then able to link them up with appropriate support either via a health champion or social prescriber. See matrix below for intervention.  

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Data sharing

Many people on the call were keen to understand the approach to data sharing, since this has been a barrier for many to develop a comprehensive and embedded approach to social prescribing in primary healthcare. It had also hampered people’s ability to respond in the current pandemic, with CCGs being unwilling to share shielding data with the VCSE due to existing data sharing agreements. From Dr Yules’ perspective, their CCG had been very supportive, waiving some governance control to ensure the right people were supported in a timely manner, letting link workers know that they were trusted to do the right thing. Even though some patients had withdrawn consent to be contacted, the emergency situation allowed the Practice to override this request and all at risk patients had been contacted. There have been no complaints.

Enabling transformation 

Returning to the theme throughout the discussion, many were nervous that things would return to pre-pandemic ways, with a focus on governance and reporting outputs and counting interactions which would not support an ongoing transformation of care and support within the healthcare system. As the last few months have demonstrated, relaxing governance and trusting organisations and individuals to do the right thing has enormous benefits and can support radical and rapid change for the better. We need to ensure that this can be adopted in a sustainable way to drive forward the positive benefits seen in the collective response to Covid-19.

 

Please join us for the next peer support session on 24th June


Resources

Resources for building cross-sector relationships that improve community-based healthcare can be viewed and downloaded from here.


[i] Practice Development Network (PDN): The PDN is designed to support the sharing of learning, experiences and challenges of working in a collaborative way across sectors in health and social care. Its core members are people who have been involved in Building Health Partnerships and Transforming Healthcare Together, however it is open to all who are working or would like to work across sectors to deliver better health and social care outcomes. The network consists of an email group, allowing individuals to share helpful resources and make useful connections between each other as well as regular webinars. To join the email group email: Nancy.towers@socialenterprise.org.uk

[ii] Population Health Management is an emerging technique for local health and care partnerships to use data to design new models of proactive care and deliver improvements in health and wellbeing which make best use of the collective resources

A place-based approach

A group of Cumbria Funders supporting community-led emergency response work share their deliberations over what a sustained response to Covid-19 might look like. The group includes independent funders, local authorities, NHS commissioners and infrastructure organisations.

Initially, Cumbria Community Foundation drew on learning from grant-making in previous emergencies such as the 2001 Foot and Mouth outbreak and flooding between 2005 and 2015.  They launched the Cumbria Covid-19 Response Fund at the end of March 2020. Several of the independent funders in Cumbria donated to the fund and joined the grants panel. This multi-agency approach was able to act quickly and flexibly to distribute funds to third sector groups – emergency response funding, agreeing to changes in what existing funding is used for, and assessing applications regularly: ‘Looking at applications on a weekly basis has definitely been a high for me, in terms of the capacity and pace in which we have responded in Cumbria. It has been a really definitive response to need’.

As a group of funders, we were keen to look at the emerging community needs regarding covid-19 and to consider this collectively. Now our attention is starting to turn to longer-term collaboration given the ongoing and uncertain nature of this pandemic. IVAR facilitated a conversation to support our thinking about whether and how we could continue working together.


Challenges

The situation remains fluid, but there are three concerns already on our minds:

 

  1. Funding: Some funders ‘have to raise our own money in order to give it away’, others are dependent on dividends that companies have suspended giving out: ‘We don’t know yet when we can look at grant-making and our situation in the long-term’. And for statutory funders in particular, internal processes are a barrier: ‘We are constrained by our funding guidelines and we try to support our third sector providers as much as we can … Even if our guidelines change, we will probably not be able to be anywhere near as flexible as other funders can be’.

  2. Organisations surviving: Some organisations doing good work will be unable to sustain themselves ‘because of a combination of possible long-term reductions in funding and fundraising activity’. This is exacerbated by lack of capacity in the third sector to think about and plan for the future, with most people either busy in emergency response work or furloughed. So, we’re not sure whether now is the time to introduce new funding pots: ‘Seen from previous emergencies, most groups would be too immersed to step out and write a proposal at this time’.

  3. Speed vs strategy: We have been busy with emergency responses, and worry that ‘we haven’t had a chance to stop and pause and look at the breadth of grant-making are we doing. Are we missing out some of our rural communities and underrepresented groups?’. There may also be a missed focus on sectors beyond healthcare and emergency, like the arts and climate change: ‘Once the dust settles, we will need to re-look at priorities’.

Shared vision with a collaborative approach

We want to work through these challenges together, to collectively support the third sector in Cumbria now and for the future – and to work with people who have ‘lived experience’ to develop a long-term vision for recovery: ‘This helps ensure panels are listening to communities and are able to then fund the actual need’.

We expect different priorities to emerge – financial hardship, children and young people, vulnerable groups, mental health issues: ‘Sharing our thinking around these priorities will be important, so we can spread out and fund different initiatives’.

 

Next steps

We believe it is ‘important not to lose the momentum and adrenaline with which we have all been working, and as we move away from lockdown to whatever the new normal looks like, we need to be practical about the collaborations built and continue to share information and work together with the same energy and vigour’. We have explored partnerships between funders who would not normally work together, and there is a need to preserve this for the long term. There is a definite appetite for working collaboratively in future. At the same time, we need to build the case for this collaboration through both hard data and softer, anecdotal data and stories. Through the Cumbria Funders group we will explore ways for future collaborative working.


‘Through this we have found that
[for all partners, funders and others,] prioritisation and collaboration is our common strength – how can we hold onto this good practice and make it our new norm? We have all been good in crisis mode, stepped up and worked together for recovery, but we must explore how we continue to do this in the long term. It is important to hold onto the positives.’ 

 


This briefing is co-hosted by Cumbria Community Foundation. It is based on a peer support session facilitated by IVAR with 16 Cumbria-based funders,  infrastructure organisations and statutory partners, namely: ACTion with Communities in Cumbria; Barrow Borough Council; Copeland Community Fund; Cumbria Community Foundation; Cumbria County Council; Cumbria CVS/Cumbria Community Resilience Group, Cumbria Exchange; Francis C Scott Charitable Trust; Frieda Scott Charitable Trust; Hadfield Trust; Lake District Foundation; Lloyds Bank Foundation; Morecambe Bay CCG; North Cumbria CCG; Sellafield Ltd; and Sir John Fisher Foundation

 

 

‘There’s no expectation to learn everything at once which makes it much less nerve wracking’

Poppy Osman, a volunteer at East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust:

‘My name is Poppy and I’m currently volunteering in the East Sussex Healthcare NHS Trust. At the moment I’m working in the Pathology department in my local hospital. I first decided to volunteer for the trust when the Coronavirus pandemic meant that there was a possibility that the NHS might be overwhelmed. I wanted to be able to do my bit to help in these uncertain times. I am in my first year of university studying biomedical science in Manchester. Volunteering has not only meant that I can contribute to the fight against Coronavirus, but it has also allowed me to gain experience of working in the NHS, a career path that I could potentially take in the future.

 

From volunteering in the NHS I have learnt many crucial skills which are useful in the workplace and in daily life. Working in the pathology department is often very fast paced as it is essential to get all the samples analysed on time. I have seen how communication is also key when discussing patient diagnosis. At times it can be hard and getting used to things as a new volunteer can be difficult but I have found from everyone I have worked with that if you are ever unsure, there are so many people willing to help you. There’s no expectation to learn everything at once which makes it much less nerve wracking.

 

My favourite moment about volunteering so far has been having the opportunity to work with and shadow the biomedical scientists in the laboratory. As biomedical science is the degree I am studying at university, having this opportunity to volunteer is not only a great experience but also something that I find really interesting and enjoyable. I’ve been able to have hands-on experience with organising samples to be sent off to hospitals in London, I have learnt how to start the process of analysing the urgent samples that come in from the hospital wards and also how to use the system to log the samples when they come into pathology reception.

 

From having this experience, I have improved so many skills including time management to ensure that samples that come into pathology reception are given to the lab as soon as possible. This is really important not only to ensure that there aren’t delays in the patients getting their results but also to ensure that the tests can be done on the sample before it becomes unsuitable for testing. Working in a hospital environment has also meant that I now have experience in a workplace which is different to one a university has to offer. As a young person it is often difficult to get opportunities to gain experience without having specialised training. It is so important that opportunities like this are more widely available to young people as it gives us the best start to our career as we become the scientists, doctors, nurses and teachers of tomorrow.’

You can find resources for setting up youth volunteering in your hospital here. They have been collated from 30 NHS Trusts and their respective charities, who have been welcoming young volunteers since early 2018. 

Thinking about merger in 2020

This blog is complemented by the perspectives of four practitioners who have led merger processes.

IVAR has learned much over the last two decades about what makes a merger successful. How much of this can applied in the current circumstances?

23 years ago, as chair of an alliance of regional HIV charities, I asked colleagues a simple question about our futures: “If we were to design a voluntary sector response to the challenge of HIV and AIDS from scratch, how would we organise ourselves?” The answer was a single, national organisation. A vehicle with the potential to achieve two essential public benefits: enhanced equity and quality of services; and a louder and more powerful voice with policy-makers and funders. 18 months later, four of our organisations merged into Terrence Higgins Trust, followed a year later by London Lighthouse and, over time, others.

This approach was rooted in a belief that organisations are a means to an end, and that there might be a better way of meeting charitable objects.  We know that mergers entered into out of strategic choice seem most likely to yield benefits to beneficiaries (e.g. more and better services) and organisations (e.g. greater influence). However, even this ideal kind of merger requires time, money and an element of risk-taking: after all, mergers are an inexact science. For all the due diligence in the world, they always require a leap of faith.

Through the work that we have been carrying out over the course of the last few months, tracking and supporting the response of smaller VCSE organisations to the Covid-19 crisis, we have observed their extraordinary resilience, creativity and integrity. This is a precious resource and needs to be understood, valued and nurtured. At the same time, we recognise that, for a myriad of reasons, the possibility of merger is beginning to loom large for many of these organisations. Leaders are feeling frustrated, worried, and unsure about how to shift gear out of crisis and into recovery. Faced with daunting challenges – funding cliff edges and sky-high demand for services – some are beginning to look at merger as a way of continuing to deliver for their beneficiaries.  The challenge is that the conditions and resources for careful, constructive mergers are less likely to be in place at the moment: organisations are feeling anxious, and the space for thinking creatively about the future is squeezed.

So, when thoughts turn to merger, how can leaders respond in ways that feel authentic and useful?

If we strip the insights and guidance of Thinking about Merger  down to their bare bones, five things stand out:

 

  1. After the 2008 financial crisis, we found that organisations were more likely to survive and, over time, thrive if they were open to asking themselves fundamental questions such as: Who are we? What are we trying to achieve? What is the best vehicle to make that happen? At a moment of crisis, there may also be an opportunity to focus minds and bring the possibility of merger into discussions about the future. 
  2. For organisations with their backs against the wall, the proposition may be: the preservation of something versus the gradual disappearance of everything. But even if you enter merger explorations on the back foot – preoccupied, say, by survival rather than growth – it’s still important to identify and then pursue a positive agenda about change. Keeping a service going might not feel like the most compelling vision, but that may be the vision that is possible right now.
  3. However bleak your prospects, merger may not be the answer. In addition to a shared vision, you need a feel for the fit with your potential partner(s). Do you have enough in common, enough shared values, to trust in the potential of a merger to work? There is no shame in concluding not. We have written before about the importance of having an ‘awareness of mortality’. For organisations whose aims are no longer appropriate, or for whom sources of public funding on which they were overwhelmingly dependent no longer exist, or who have not been able to make a transition to a new environment or find a sustainable alternative business model, it may be more responsible to close down rather than compete with others or struggle on, hand to mouth. Or there may be steps short of merger that can at least preserve some of what has been achieved – such as hiving off a non-loss-making service, or simply much closer collaboration.
  4. Under normal circumstances, we would encourage possible merger partners to think about possible deal breakers upstream. These might include questions of identity (including name and brand), location, service model, and staffing. Without the luxury of time, or resources to support a staged process, it will still be important to articulate and be mindful of what each partner is not prepared to give up or take on. Without, at best, addressing these ‘red lines’ or, at worst, putting in place plans to do so, the risk of failure will increase.
  5. Finally, there is one key deal breaker which will need to be resolved as early as possible in the process: leadership. Here, as with all design considerations in a merger, form needs to follow function. In other words, what kind of leadership will the new, merged entity require to give it the best chance of succeeding?

IVAR and Bates Wells are working on a new edition of Thinking about Merger to support charities navigating the particular challenges presented by Covid-19. Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to know when this is released.

The key features and stages of merger are outlined in Thinking about Merger, and described in more detail in the Locality and TACT case studies.