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Four principles to shape your grant-making today

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

A simple ambition for grant-making: unrestricted and light-touch

Over the last decade there has been much talk of funders – particularly trusts and foundations – trying to become less burdensome, more straightforward and quicker in their dealings with applicants and grantees. In the current context, as funders and VCSE (voluntary, community and social enterprise) organisations grapple with uncertainty, anxiety and complexity, we are all having do things differently. It’s too soon for definitive answers on long-term strategy but we feel there is an opportunity now to collaborate in rethinking the future and the funding practices that will best support it – to explore what’s needed to enable funders to remain outside their normal. This is the focus of our new learning review, in collaboration with London Funders and a group of charities and funders.

 

 

As a group, we are ambitious for change. We recognise that the moment demands it. Not just the need for a simpler philanthropy, one that can reflect and accommodate the anxiety and uncertainty of applicants. But also a respectful philanthropy, one that recognises that applicants and grantees have assets – activities, services, reach, trust, legitimacy, practice, knowledge, expertise, energy and passion – that have intrinsic value and significance. And an inclusive philanthropy, one that is resolved to rise to the challenge (so strongly exemplified in the Black Lives Matter protests over recent months) of breaking down the systemic barriers that exclude and disadvantage so many.

 

At the same time, we need to be determined. When people comment wryly that ‘it took a pandemic for the value of unrestricted income and light touch reporting to be felt by trusts and foundations’, it brings home how hard it is to achieve deep and meaningful change. Together, we seek to translate words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – into visible, practical and durable changes to behaviour and practice. To turn things upside down, so the burden falls on funders to ensure that their systems and their processes are truly simple, respectful and inclusive.

 

Together, we seek to translate words – ‘trust’, ‘speed’, ‘light touch’ – into visible, practical and durable changes to behaviour and practice.

We have been here before, researching and arguing for progressive practice. In 2011, IVAR embarked on ‘Recession Watch’, exploring how independent funders could help small voluntary organisations navigate the political and economic uncertainty sparked by the 2008 recession. We heard about the reduced availability of core funding; higher demand for services due to increasing poverty, hunger and unemployment; difficulty accessing ‘funder plus’ support due to the time or travel commitment incurred; and a lack of time for strategic planning that amplified these other issues.

 

Five years later, in 2016, we returned to the question of small organisations’ health and prospects through a study on sustainability. We argued for relational, rather than contractual, interaction between funders and funded organisations. An interaction which values the contribution of the ‘real world’ experience and knowledge of the funded organisation and the resources, overview and convening power of the funder.

 

Then, in 2018, we returned to the Recession Watch organisations. We found that their ability to adapt continued to be hampered by precarious balance sheets and uncertainty about their future. And we highlighted again the importance of greater flexibility, of funders making processes more proportionate – looking for ‘not what suits me but what helps you’; and of being more responsive: giving more core funding, more feedback, more support. We saw encouraging signs of some foundations being more realistic about the outcomes they can expect small organisations to deliver in complex environments, while increasingly valuing the unique role they play in meeting the needs of those who do not fit into standard boxes.  

 

Speaking most strongly to the current crisis, in 2018 we published The possible, not the perfect. Grant makers who responded to emergencies during 2017 demonstrated just how far foundations are able to adapt their procedures in the face of crisis. Processes were slimmed down, conversations took the place of form filling for applications and reporting, and time frames for decisions radically contracted. ‘Being effective’ in these circumstances did not mean delivering a perfect grant programme that no-one could question or criticise; it meant being ‘straightforward, easy, quick and trusting’.

 

Then, as now, we argued that that this notion of ‘effective’ grant-making had the potential to resonate beyond the confines of emergencies. Funders were excited by what had proved possible: ‘There is an opportunity here and it would be a shame to let it go. Let’s not get too bogged down in all the problems and challenges – all it takes is a few organisations who are willing to get on with trying out some of these ideas to see how they work’. And local organisations trying to serve their communities were hungry for change: ‘Every day in a community is an emergency. They don’t have to have a tragedy to give money that way.’

 

Throughout this period, funders have been evolving. Green shoots of genuinely progressive practice have been slowly emerging – now rocket propelled, as everything has been, by the imperative of the Covid-19 crisis. In a few short weeks, some funders have transformed their relationship with grantees, dismantling onerous reporting structures and proactively offering a range of financial and technical support. Others have overhauled their 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.

 

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.

There is much to draw from and build on. That is why we are ambitious. But we must be determined. Because, while we know how flexible and imaginative funders can be in the face of emergencies, we have also lived through stalled attempts to evolve funder practice. Already some foundations are feeling the pull of familiar ways of working – a sense that ‘the immediate emergency response has been successfully negotiated, now let’s get back to business as usual’. And, for applicants and grantees – waiting for the email, wondering whether to call, second guessing what is required, struggling to interpret criteria, jumping through hoops, dressing up core costs as innovations – the stress and the strain persist. The power to change this, the power to remain outside the normal, resides with trusts and foundations. Their importance for the VCSE sector cannot be over-estimated. They continue to be uniquely placed to provide continuity; take risks; operate flexibly; and invest in politically unpopular or marginalised areas. With these freedoms come responsibilities. Not to shoulder all of the burden; but certainly to ensure that their contributions are the very best that they can be.

 

We have seen what is possible in an emergency. The challenge now is for funders and VCSE organisations together to interrogate these new behaviours and to nurture and grow the best of them into the future. A future that, as far as the eye can see, will be characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. A future that therefore requires a sustained commitment to flexibility and creative adaptation. That is our ambition.

 

Join us by completing this survey – it will take approximately 20 minutes and will inform work to help to shape both future emergency approaches and general grant-making practice (e.g. stripping back application processes; reaching new groups or speeding up decision-making). 

 

We’re working with a group of charities and funders: 

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