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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: 

Logo Board - Learning Review

 

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. 

How can we – as funders – help communities to deal with the pandemic?

Over the past 15 months, we’ve been supporting grassroots, community-based grant-making in each of the four home nations through Comic Relief’s UK Intermediary Funders initiative¹. Learning has been key to our approach as we want to understand how we as funders can share and shift power to people in communities through ‘lived experience’ and community-led approaches, both in the grant-making process and the grants themselves. Now, in the midst of a pandemic that is deepening inequalities and creating an environment of prolonged uncertainty, how can we continue to do that? What are we learning as a group of funders that we can hold onto as we move into recovery and renewal?

Through this blog, we wanted to share some of the questions being discussed amongst our grassroots intermediary funders.

Emergency vs the longer term

Most charities are really anxious about funding – they may have some money now for emergency work, but with no fundraising and limited grant-making for non-emergency work, there will be a gap very soon. We are really conscious of this, and know there is a role for us, our partners and other foundations in protecting charities for the future.

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

  • Should we stall some emergency funding, in case there is a second ‘lockdown’ in the autumn and winter? Or should we hope that we will be able to meet future needs through additional fundraising?
  • How can we work to ensure that emergency funding is accessible to those who need it and supports organisations on the frontline to deliver crisis support whilst sustaining them so they are able to provide in the medium and long term? What’s on the horizon?
  • We can’t yet predict when something vaguely resembling normal life will resume, and what exactly that will look like. What does that mean for the timing and focus of our support, and our expectations of charities in relation to plans and activities? When should we seek to shift from emergency to recovery?
  • We do know that the pandemic is exposing and deepening inequalities, and that both the charity and funding sector will need to adapt – to both changing needs in communities and shifting priorities. What will that mean for future grant-making processes? What can we do to retain the flexibility and collaboration that has emerged between many funders over the last few months?
  • Many organisations are providing emergency support beyond their particular area of experience – like mental health support or working with women affected by domestic abuse. Can or should this work be sustained over the long term, ensuring those intervening in such complex issues have a ‘do no harm’ approach as a starting point? This will ensure those doing this work have the proper expertise to deal with the issues responsibly and effectively.
  • Many emergency funds ignore so-called ‘nice to have’ things in the community, like cultural arts, theatre and sports – in the long run, how is this going to impact on people’s lives and social values, especially young people’s education and mental health?

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

New community groups have formed across the UK in response to Covid-19, and they aren’t waiting for funding – they’re just getting on with it, driven by empathy and with little ambition to be constituted organisations. Some of us have funded residents’ groups even though, in the past, we would have preferred something more structured; others are looking at whether this could continue beyond emergency: ‘I don’t think there is anything stopping us, it is us that strangle ourselves’. How do we support these groups as drivers of community change? And will they want to continue or disband after the pandemic? ‘In a time of crisis and chaos, there has been a new order established around shifting the power which has communities and their responses at the heart’.

 

As funders, while appreciating the myriad of amazing community responses, we need to be mindful of the groups that already exist doing responsive work. We must not forget them, and we must remain alert to the possibility of duplication – between longer-standing activities and newer, emergency responses: for example, established food banks working on ending food poverty, alongside newer groups doing similar work, could lead to an over or under supply of food.

 

Doing the right thing – ask funded partners or potential funded partners to help us think about the future

 

Communities have shown tremendous power in leading from the front, reacting first often ahead of both established charity and statutory organisations’ responses and support. They are becoming first responders by asking for feedback from people on the ground to understand local needs. As funders, we must find ways to support and embed this shift in power right down to the local community level. And we must also be conscious to proactively reach out to those groups who are disproportionately affected, may not be well represented in broader community responses, or may not have the means and avenues to be able to directly ask for help? (For example: BAME communities, LGBTQ+ communities, young carers, and people dealing with loss and grief.)

 

Grassroots organisations are already thinking of ways they could deal with the challenges lockdown has thrown up, for the longer term. Things like mental health, isolation, increased inequalities and child poverty, and domestic abuse. After the pandemic, how can this surge of community action help us to understand what is needed and how can we support this community response for resilience and rebuilding?

 

So…

 

Like many funders, we have adapted our processes and made them simpler; we have been flexible in our grant-making; and we have set up emergency funds quickly in response to Covid-19. But it feels like we’re at the start of a period of sustained evolution and adaptation. We hope to work closely with people, communities and other funders as we face the future together.

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 


[1] The four intermediary funders are The Community Foundation for Northern Ireland, Corra Foundation in Scotland, Wales Council for Voluntary Action and Groundwork in England.

From disused bus stop to community hub

Stainsacre is a Yorkshire village 2 miles from Whitby where transport via bus has stopped due to cutbacks. This has had a big impact on the people living there causing some to relocate. As a Totally Socially Development Worker and Stainsacre resident, I wanted to get the community talking about solutions to the transport issue, but where could we meet when there was no obvious place? If I tell you that we first met at a bus stop, surely you would be intrigued to know how this came about and where we are now.

Why a bus stop?


I was walking my dog and walked past a disused stone-built bus shelter. It occurred to me what a great little space it was and made me wonder if people would meet me there to discuss our local transport issues. I asked my mum (and fellow Stainsacre villager) to come along for moral support to help me start a meet-up. We started by cleaning out the bus shelter to make it a place that one wouldn’t mind passing an hour or too. We added cushions, chairs, stools, fairy lights and a trolley full of tea, coffee, cake and biscuits. Then we made a basic leaflet and spent three hours walking around the village talking to people about our intentions and posting the leaflet through doors.

At the first meet-up, 20 people arrived. In fact, they came early and left late! People discussed how the lack of transport had effected them and people they knew – some of who were now stuck in the village or facing a long walk (often pushing a wheel chair) down unsuitable paths or roads. It was a really happy event and we decided to do it all again and meet once a month.


Unexpected results


In terms of progress in dealing with the transport issues, many solutions have come out the meet-ups – not just the one! For example, small pockets of people have begun to share taxis, a conversation with the local community transport organisation was held and an offer made, and some neighbours help each other out by giving lifts to town or doctor’s appointments.


Our monthly meet-ups have become more than a way to solve local transport issues now. Parish Councillors have made a good connection with the group and are now a huge part of running it. It’s used as a way to feedback from council meetings to people who were unable to attend and to ensure that people are able to have their say and their views are taken back to the parish council meeting. Organisations focussing on health and security, such as the Fire Service, have also shown an interest in attending. It is seen as a great way to access the views of a group of local people and get knowledge to them.


The community has become generally more connected – people now know each other and, in some cases, by their actual name not just “the egg lady”! At the meet-ups, those attending talk about many things such as the history of the village and their past. They swap vegetables and books. Some of the elderly people have begun to mix with people they didn’t before and it’s become a gathering to look forward to. As people began to know one another, they decided to host in their own homes (not just the bus shelter) and assisted those who might struggle to do this. In one instance, a meeting host struggled to walk, so his neighbours made the tea and helped him to set up. What is great is that people from nearby villages have also started attending, often with a view to setting up something themselves or to feedback to the group because of their own community connections.


As a result of the unexpected popularity and success of the group – now known as the ‘Stainsacre Social’ – the reason for meeting up has widened to not just be about finding a permanent solution to transport, it now aims to connect people in order to form their own solutions to wider local issues. Looking forward, the group would like to formalise and work on other things like running a village hosted event. Who knows where the Stainsacre Social will go next!


Taking a risk and not having an initial ‘outcome’ has been liberating. It is very much the Totally Socially way! People create their own aims and form their own solutions based on the knowledge and skills they already have. They have their own strengths and ideas and they should be allowed to try these out and, if necessary, fail and learn for next time. Being part of the Stainsacre Social has been great on so many levels. As a resident I now know many more people, some well enough to offer a lift to the local shops. On a professional level, it’s great to see that people only need the seed of something new in order to mould it into something far better themselves.


The Totally Socially project is funded by The National Lottery Community Fund and run by Coast and Vale Community Action. For more details, please check out Totally Socially on Facebook or www.cavca.org.uk.

Calling all funders! Help us test a new risk framework

Our recent studies The possible, not the perfect and Duty to Care? observed that ‘too much caution can narrow the range of people and organisations funded and what that funding can achieve’, and encouraged funders to consider if they ‘are taking enough risk rather than too much.’

Today we launch a Risk Framework (created with a pilot group of five funders) to help funders to think about their appetite for and approaches to risk. As part of our ongoing work on Thinking about … risk, we are now looking for funders to help to test the new framework.

 

A framework for thinking about risk

 

The framework aims to help funders achieve clarity about the different aspects of opportunity and risk inherent in their strategies and aspirations. And to ensure that their application, assessment and decision-making practices accurately reflect their appetite for and approaches to risk.

The framework outlines seven attitudes and aspirations – plotted on a spectrum – that tend to influence appetite for risk and associated practices:

 

  1. Attitude to innovation
  2. Expertise
  3. Certainty and clarity of outcome
  4. Data
  5. Capacity and capability
  6. Financial risk
  7. Public opinion

 

The framework provides a structure for interrogating the balance to be achieved between ‘the things we care about’ (positive risk) and ‘the things that we worry about’ (risk mitigation). This enables challenges and inconsistencies to be ironed out before going on to the practical question about how risk is to be identified and managed day-to-day.

 

Read Thinking about … risk and try out the framework here.

We need your help


IVAR and the funder pilot group want to widen the conversation and encourage more funders to test the framework and bring a range of opinion to bear on the critical challenge of making the practical connection between intended risk profiles and day-to-day grant-making practice.

Is your organisation taking ‘enough risk’? Would you like support to achieve more clarity about your appetite for risk? Get in touch to join a group of funders collaborating with us to take the process through to its next stage. Participation will involve:

 

  • Using the framework (with the support and guidance of IVAR facilitators) to assess the risk profile of a grant programme

  • Attending a ‘share and build’ workshop with other funders

  • Consenting to share the findings more widely to help shape the future of thinking about risk in grant-making.

5 things that help communities turn ideas into action

Totally Socially is an excellent example of how local infrastructure organisations are supporting voluntary and community groups to thrive.

The programme’s four dedicated outreach workers provide responsive and regular support to communities at different stages of bringing their ideas to life. They help people find solutions to the challenges their communities face, by talking and listening to people and getting to know what makes their communities tick. Most importantly, they always let the communities take the lead. 


I recently had the pleasure of carrying out a mid-term review of Totally Socially, and identified five things that help if you are supporting community groups to turn ideas into action:

      1. Relationships
      2. Starting where people are
      3. Supporting adaptation
      4. Spreading the word and sharing ideas
      5. Practical support

1. Relationships


Build strong relationships by being reliable, nimble, flexible and approachable. Nurture strengths without overstepping.


‘We could have done it on our own but it would have taken forever, we trusted [our Totally Socially worker].’


The relationship with the Totally Socially workers is central to the support provided. They have an ‘open door’ approach, they move quickly to find a way to speed things up or unblock a problem, and show how to do things without doing those things for the group or person. People were not put under pressure, but encouraged to draw on their strengths. The workers’ ability to be nimble and reliable has meant a lot to people and has built strong and lasting relationships. This dual approach of drawing out what is already there in a person or group, and complementing that with some quick wins to move things along has been very effective.

 

2. Starting where people are


Build on what is already happening. Take a mentoring role to reassure and build confidence.

‘It’s about helping people to help themselves – not doing it for them. So valuing their ideas with local people driving the agenda so the ideas are more likely to last’.

The support approach used by Totally Socially Workers is in itself unusual for participants. Words used to describe the worker’s approach were: ‘mentoring’, ‘coproduction’, ‘working alongside’, ‘reassuring’ and ‘building confidence’. There was a marked lack of hierarchy in the way workers thought of themselves, describing it as a peer relationship, with a two-way flow of knowledge.


3. Supporting adaptation


Remain adaptable to need and level of support.


‘They believed the ideas would work, I have the skill base to do it but not the business knowledge – having these people around with their honesty and ambition [is] very positive… They support you to fail positively through the process.’


Fundamental to the support is adaptation. This runs through everything, workers gauge the type and level of support needed, and tailor it, deciding whether to take a light-touch or hands-on approach. Three features of this support to adapt emerged, i) there will be a way, ii) keeping an eye on things, iii) failing forward.


4. Spreading the word and sharing ideas

Get out into the community and use networks to get the message out for the community groups.

 

‘I didn’t realise how much help they could give us and contacts to make a good event – they even helped me with a printing company for a poster to promote an event’


Totally Socially place themselves in community spaces, i.e. libraries and cafes, they talk to people on the street, in family spaces and where people live. They supported with publicity – via social media, getting groups connected and providing advertising and media coverage for organisations and groups. All have noticeably increased numbers of those interested and taking part in community activities.

 

5. Practical support


Don’t underestimate the value of being hands on and offering practical support.


‘Initially Totally Socially were providing refreshments and now I have the confidence to approach local cafes directly and ask them to support us’


Practical support was invaluable – helping with event refreshments, recruiting volunteers, offering advice on how to attract funding. The organisations valued how locally connected and available/on hand the workers were.


Totally Socially is run by Coast and Vale Community Action (CAVCA) and funded by the National Lottery Community Fund.  You can read the full mid-term review of the programme here.

All funders owe it to the sector to continue to improve their thinking on continuation funding

Charities or community organisations receiving a grant will almost inevitably confront a dilemma.  At the point of receiving their grant, the funder will tell them that their funding is only for a time limited period, and that there is no guarantee of future funding beyond this point.  But what many charities want isn’t just a single grant for one, three or even five years, but some funding to try things out, and then more funding to keep their activities going and develop them further.

 

This creates a number of problems.  For example, charities often do not know until a few months before their grant ends whether their funder will continue to fund their work.  This makes staff retention and long term resource planning difficult.  They believe that they are more likely to get funding if they present their work as a new project, even if that’s not really what’s needed.  Replacing a grant often requires securing grants from multiple different funders – in a funding environment which is particularly challenging for small to medium sized charities and likely to continue to be so.

 

Brutally honest

There is a brilliant blog imagining how charities would answer questions from funders if they were being brutally honest, rather than telling funders what they think they want to hear.  In answer to the question about how the applicant plans to sustain their work after the grant ends, they say:

 

‘We will leave you alone and harass other people, continuing to spend half our time trying to convince other foundations that our programmes and communities are worth being supported, instead of running and improving the programmes that our communities desperately need. Then, after a year or so, when hopefully you forgot that we applied earlier, we’ll reapply to your foundation.’

 

Systemic failure

At its worst, this creates a systemic failure.  Statutory funders achieve ‘sustainability’ when independent foundations choose to pick up the activities which they used to fund.  Independent foundations achieve ‘sustainability’ when the statutory sector funds the charities which they’ve supported.  And charities are stuck on this carousel, writing and rewriting proposals rather than being able to plan for the long term and fulfil their mission.

 

No wonder that in IVAR’s report, Thinking about Sustainability, they challenge funders to be ‘prepared to consider continuation funding as a mark of development and success rather than a sign of dependency’.  Or as Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the National Lottery Community Fund, argued, ‘the flexibility of long term grant funding makes it particularly well suited to enabling the shift to high quality early action services. Making that long term commitment isn’t always easy for grant funders and often needs courage and an appetite for risk’.

 

So what can funders do differently?

As the UK’s largest grant maker, we’ve been making a number of changes to how we work:

 

Firstly, we have made our funding more flexible, including support for core costs and capacity building as well as project activities.  This means that from the start of a grant we can support organisations to think about how to develop and fund their activities for the long term.  Over the past few months, we’ve seen the average length of our grants increase, and increased the proportion of our funding which goes to smaller and medium sized charities and community groups.

 

Secondly, our funding staff are based in communities across the UK, so it is easier to build up relationships with outstanding charities and community groups and know more about how we can support them to fulfil their mission and enable communities to thrive.  That’s not just about money, sometimes offering the opportunity to work with other charities or share learning can be just as important.

 

Thirdly, we’ve introduced dedicated funding for partnerships. Organisations that have achieved longer term financial stability and have more capacity to think about how to develop their work will increasingly work together with others, rather than on their own. We expect this will increasingly mean that when people come to us to continue their work, they’ll want to tell us how they’ll collaborate with others in doing so.

 

Fourthly, we can now identify opportunities where our funding can be a time limited part of longer term growth plans, especially for social enterprises, or where charities can use our support to leverage funding from other sources. At the same time we recognise that this will be appropriate in specific situations rather than as a default assumption for all grants.

 

Lastly, while continuation funding is important and valuable, funders like us always need to be finding and supporting people with great ideas that we’ve never worked with before.  Maintaining a balanced approach including both continuation funding and becoming more open and accessible is crucial – especially as our sector and our communities continue to change and experience new kinds of challenges and opportunities.


Ben Cairns – Director for the Institute for Voluntary Action Research – responded to this blog with four questions for funders to ask themselves when considering continuation funding. 

Drowning in jargon? Squeaky ducks may be the answer

Given all the attention we are paying to co-design and co-production these days – some of the language we are using around health and care is not helping. In short, it has become a barrier to getting things done. People are put off and alienated, even avoiding opportunities to attend meetings and events for fear of not knowing what’s being talked about (or of not having the time to translate!).


What’s the problem?


Now more than ever we are faced with a blizzard of acronyms, whizzing past us at pace with often little or no opportunity to question (or at least feel safe to) or better understand what is actually being said.

 

Through the national Building Health Partnerships: Self-care programme, cross-sector partners are working hard to address the problem – and are being guided by community leaders and lived experience patient representatives who are helping us all get better at the way we communicate and get things done.

One of the more fun ways we are keeping people on their toes with language, for participants and presenters and facilitators, is to have a few squeaky ducks on each table – for squeaking when abbreviations or language needs to be explained a bit more.

IMG_0186

 

One thing I have noticed is that the number of ducks is diminishing but the use of language is improving!


Getting it wrong, then right


In a recent invitation co-produced for a partnership session in the South West, one community leader fed back that the wording was too statutory, academic and high-level and that it may not attract the smaller, very grounded voluntary and community groups we are so keen to involve and give a voice to.

For example; let’s take the term Sustainability & Transformation Partnership – what is that? If not known then groups may be excluded.

 

‘Who cares what ‘programme’ this initiative is part of, isn’t it the outcomes, differences or impact that the idea or development wishes to achieve that is the hook to get a range of players (and different players) to engage?’


Some more examples from the North East


Some concerns were raised about what we call things and what we are really trying to do here:

 

‘The terminology ‘self-care’ could be a barrier in itself’

 

‘The language of social prescribing pushes activities into medical language’


A new language altogether?


It’s funny to recall, in a recent session at the Pioneering Care Centre in Durham, after showing The Parable of the Blobs & Squares video – the language in the room changed quite a bit and we had GPs talking about the need to be more ‘blobby’ and voluntary organisations recognising their ‘square-ish’ tendencies – but somehow this language worked better. Perhaps it helped us find more common ground. At the end of the day, that is the whole point isn’t it?

Forget about the strategy, business plan and theory of change: start with what you want to do and why

This is about the big decisions. The ones that keep you up at night but also get you out of bed each morning. The way these decisions are taken often feels out of control, inexplicable and the consequences frequently attributed to personalities, errors of judgement or lack of proper planning. So what needs to happen to take back control? And in a short, focused time frame?

 

First, be clear as to what you think these big issues are all about.

 

It needs a blank sheet approach, trying to sort out the day-to-day concerns from the fundamentals. Write them down. Go back to your organisation’s history and roots: see what the mission statement says or, if it’s unwritten, ask to what extent these are still underpinning everything you do. Equally important, does everyone in the organisation understand these organisational principles and buy into them? Because whatever you decide to do, it will be influenced by these values and assumptions, either explicitly or taken for granted.

 

Once you’re clear about what you consider the main issues to be and how the organisational principles might interact with them, check with other people as to whether they share your perspective.

 

The way others perceive problems may surprise you. You need to talk with staff, trustees, volunteers, users and anyone else identified as a key stakeholder. You are trying to elicit the values and goals of the team which are inherent in how they see the issues of concern. Find a system that works for recording all of this: something like ‘cognitive maps’ for each group which can be merged and clustered. Then feed it back and check it out with the participants, either individually or via larger meetings.

 

Throughout this process, be aware of the different agendas in your organisation.

 

There may be various interests at stake, challenges to established ways of doing things, hidden resistances. Getting as many of these as possible out into the open might be painful but is usually worth the effort. They are often a means of expressing how much people value and feel passion for the work of the organisation, rather than being about individual gain. Always recognise the strengths of the organisation and build upon these.

 

Inevitably, by this stage, you will not only have identified two or three major issues but also gathered some first ideas for their resolution.

 

Now move into this action phase. It should remain highly collaborative, with all the participants involved and engaged. The areas commonly identified for change are set out and tackled. You should invite ideas, suggestions and proposals for action, building up detailed plans and timescales. This might be achieved in small, cross-organisation groups or large half-day workshops.

 

Finally, you need to ensure that a final report is prepared, drawing together all of the strands that have come to light.

 

Individuals or a forum are assigned responsibilities for taking the actions forward and monitoring progress. Remain fully focused. Remember that strategy-making, for that’s what this process is all about, is a flexible, responsive process and nothing is set in stone. Keep everything under review, build in new external factors and always try to keep what it is you want to do, those organisational principles, in the foreground.

 

We think that there is a clear benefit to this process in having an external facilitator involved. Such a person not only takes responsibility for guiding and structuring the process but brings a different way of looking at issues, an ability to draw out strengths and find potential answers and is someone who can support and encourage change.
 
 

Are you ready to apply for core funding?

Core funding is a bit of a holy grail – highly valued and very hard to come by. At IVAR, we’ve spent quite a bit of time talking to funders who give it and organisations who receive it. Read on for suggestions about how you can make the case for core funding and ensure your organisation is ready to make the most of it.

 


There is no single prescription; the terms core costs, operating costs and central costs are often used interchangeably within the sector. They describe essential running costs: including support costs; income generation and governance activities. Some funders also provide unrestricted funding or strategic grants which as less restricted that project funding. The important thing is to make sure you and your funders have a shared understanding of what it means from the outset.


 

How would you use core funding?

 

Core funding provides voluntary organisations with an opportunity – and the resources – to think, plan, test new things, improve services or just ensure a bit of security. Some organisations use their funding to support strong back office functions like finance, IT and human resources, all of which ensure the organisation is as effective as it can be in achieving its mission. Other organisations use core funding to develop or do some strategic thinking. They might undertake some research, design and test new approaches to improve their performance or adapt in times of rapid change. These sorts of activities are unlikely to happen without the space and time away from service delivery that core funding provides.



Organisations have told us that core or unrestricted funding has helped them to:

 

  • Become more confident

  • Engage in statutory consultations and service redesign

  • Develop strategic relationships that have led to further funding

  • Expand services into new areas

  • Establish new partnerships

‘We have more confidence now to be at the decision-making table with strategic partners. I feel like we are operating at a better, more strategic level locally and that is new – [we’re] really raising our profile in the local community.’

 

‘We are moving towards feeling an important part of the local infrastructure – I think part of this is us having greater confidence that we have value’

 

Make it easy for funders to say yes

 

Making a difference to beneficiaries

 

Funders obviously want to know that their money is making the most difference to beneficiaries as possible. Sometimes it can be tricky to demonstrate this sort of change/impact from a core funding grant, especially if you’re spending the money on research or strategic development. However, in our experience core funding used for this type of work can lead to some far reaching changes which do ultimately benefit communities and even strengthen whole sectors. Demonstrating how you align with a funder’s objectives or their thematic areas of focus (e.g. young people) should help you make the case.

 

Making a step-change

 

Funders often want to see a ‘step change’ in the way services are delivered, so it’s important to demonstrate that you’ve got the vision and ambition as well as the skills to follow through. Make sure you have a business plan to outline this. Be flexible – most funders don’t mind if plans change or adapt, as long as you can show why a change is the best course of action.

 

Leadership, leadership, leadership

 

Funders will be looking for strong leadership to ride the tide of organisational change. If they’re looking to strengthen your sector, they might look specifically for organisations who are well networked and already play a leadership or coordination role, and can deliver goals that they share.


Organisational readiness

 

We’ve found that organisations embarking on any kind of change often face a number of challenges which, again, appear to centre around leadership. Grantees have told us that as their organisations changed, so did their governance requirements. They needed new experience and skills to help them made big decisions such as buying a new property, merger, making changes to a funding model or seeking new partners. Making sure you have good support in place, including a strong board of trustees and knowing when and where you can access some professional development or mentoring support will help ensure your organisation is ready for core funding.



Ultimately, the organisations that are able to make the most of their core funding have been led by committed, passionate individuals with clear visions for their organisations and an understanding of how to manage strategic change. As one organisation told us:

 

‘overall this is about improving the quality and quantity of our services’