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Summary of new briefing: Birds in a hurricane

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


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


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


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



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


Core Funding


Key pressures organisations have faced


  • Funding

  • Increasing/changing demand

  • Going online

  • Taking care of their teams

  • Leadership

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

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


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


Core Funding


What has it taken to keep going?


  • Collaboration

  • Taking care of staff and volunteers

  • Discovering new ways to connect

  • Responsible, supportive funders

  • Financial cushions

  • A space to share

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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

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


Core Funding


What next? 


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

Core Funding


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


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

Core Funding


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


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

Core Funding


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

Core Funding


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


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

Core Funding


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


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

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


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


Photo by Fer Nando on Unsplash.

Covid-19: The diary of a small funder

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


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


11 March


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


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


18 March


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


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


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


25 March


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


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


1 April


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


8 April


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


15 April


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


22 April


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


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

Closing well: Ending the work of a ‘spend-out’ trust

From the outset, the Trust was designed as a spend-out organisation. From day one, we have been planning for closure. Working as a time-limited organisation creates opportunities, but can also present challenges. Closing an organisation, and ending partnerships with grantees, can be complex and time-consuming. Honest, open dialogue combined with a clear plan and willingness to be flexible can help ensure that grant partners, and the programmes they deliver, are left in a strong position.

Sustainability has always been at the core of the Trust’s programmes, ensuring that the work we deliver with our partners will continue long after we close – as a lasting legacy in honour of The Queen. As such, our approach has focused on integrating our programmes into government policies and supporting work that will be able to continue into the future. We worked with established partners to deliver a number of programmes. Concluding these partnerships, efficiently and effectively, was one of our priorities as we approached closure.

We found it important to state, clearly and unequivocally, that we intended to spend all of our funds and close. We wanted to avoid any level of uncertainty of behalf of our partners. It was most helpful to talk through all the details of our closure plans with partners from an early stage. The more fully partners were able to understand the logistical and legal intricacies of closure the more they were able to prepare. Each step was discussed several months in advance to allow each partners’ financial and legal teams to feed into the process. Although we had a standard process, each relationship was unique and required a bespoke approach.

We chose to close all the Trust’s programmes six months before the Trust’s public closure. This provided us sufficient time to address any challenges and complete the grant closure process. Our experience has shown that we needed the full six months in order to complete closure responsibly. The Trust had a comparatively small portfolio of 28 grants, although several of these involved a significant number of organisations working in consortia in multiple countries.

We maintained frequent contact with all our grant partners throughout the grant period to track spending and ensure that all funds would be responsibly spent by the time the Trust had closed. In the months running up to the planned closure date we needed to be flexible to allow partners to reallocate small amounts of funding. This ensured that all funds could be spent effectively on programme priorities within the Trust’s lifetime.

Our lawyers helped us to put together grant closure letters that summarised various legal, reporting, communications and data issues into one document. We then shared a draft with each grant partner to allow time for their own legal teams to suggest and edits. This process helped both sides to understand their rights and responsibilities. It also highlighted any outstanding issues, such as ownership of intellectual property, which were still to be resolved.

The overall process of closing all of our grants was intended to be comprehensive but straightforward to implement. Final reports from partners would be reviewed at the Trust, followed by a meeting or call to discuss the overall impact and if any issues remained. Once all parties were satisfied that the programme had been completed a letter would be signed by both parties, whereupon the grants would be considered officially closed.

Operating as a spend-out organisation has provided us with a clear focus on what we wanted to achieve. This approach has guided our strategic and operational decisions throughout our lifetime. We have remained focused on our mission and we have been forced to make sometimes difficult decisions about how we can create the greatest impact with the time and resources available to us. Having sufficient time and resource dedicated to closing our programmes, and concluding our relationships with our partners, has enabled us to leave the stage confident in the legacy of work and hopeful for the future of the Commonwealth.

Managing our community asset in an era of austerity

Katherine Low Settlement (KLS) is a multi-purpose charity in Battersea, South West London, which provides services to build stronger communities and enable people to challenge poverty and isolation. We have 32 paid staff, 8 trustees, and around 230 volunteers involved in delivering services for children and families, older people and refugee communities.


Who we are: ‘Collaboration, participation, care and kindness’


KLS was established in 1924 in memory of Katherine Low who is believed to have been a suffragette and philanthropist (no one knows for certain) who tackled issues around poverty in South East London. When she died, her friends used philanthropic funds to buy the settlement in Battersea – an area with rising levels of poverty and social inequality from the era of industrialisation.

‘[Our values of] collaboration, participation, care and kindness are the same, but the services that we offer have changed to reflect the needs of the local communities we work with.’


We’re now a ‘pillar’ in the community, offering affordable rents and providing start up support for local groups and agencies, which in turn has developed a substantial staff and volunteer base that widens our social impact in the area. By having these roots, e.g. having trustees that reside in the local area, we have established trusting relationships with our community and secured its involvement in decision-making.


How we have maintained the Settlement’s financial health in an era of austerity


Our current financial health is stable and prosperous, but we have faced periods of economic uncertainty in the past due to dependency on funding sources; feeling the impact of austerity; having full responsibility of the maintenance and upkeep of the freehold; and not, until recently, utilising the space to maximise the unrestricted funds gained. Consequently, we have had to make difficult decisions, including having to sell off other assets that were previously part of the Settlement (two buildings located nearby) to keep the charity afloat.


In recent years, we have strived to turn this around and become financially sustainable by bringing in new leadership; reassessing the use of the asset and utilising the space; and developing a healthier financial model. Three key aspects were influential in developing the Settlement’s financial health:


  1. The diversification of income
  2. Profiting from owning the freehold
  3. Reputation and values


Diversification of income: In the last six years, we have made a conscious decision to move away from being dependent on income revenue and develop an effective contingency plan to fund building maintenance by diversifying the range of income sources. We have now developed a balanced funding model, consisting of earned income and a portfolio of charitable trust grants, and worked to maximise the use of the asset, resulting in a significant shift from 26% to 80% occupancy. This shift has generated unrestricted income that we have invested back into the charity, which in turn has heightened our independence and allowed us to subsidise typically unfavourable aspects to fund. For example, core costs, maintenance and repairs, and room renovations to become multi-purpose spaces, whilst also providing affordable rent for community groups. This new funding model has also influenced a shift in practice by implementing regular monitoring of our finances; a separate finance committee; a monthly finance report; and the Director focused on fundraising.


Owning the freehold: By owning the freehold, we could access charitable trust grants, such as a Heritage Lottery grant, which fund building renovations. Owning the freehold has not only provided economic benefit, but also had an emotional impact – we have a sense of security, confidence, and autonomy. We are not operating in fear that a landlord might abruptly end our lease or increase rents. Instead, this sense of security enables our staff to invest in the Settlement, both emotionally and financially, over the last 95 years.


Reputation and values: The initial purpose of tackling issues around poverty and social inclusion continues to be a driving principle for how we use the asset, although the approach adopted depends on the needs and circumstances of local residents at that time. Our longevity has played an important role in surviving turbulent times by demonstrating a strong value base and commitment to supporting the local area. This has built long lasting, trusting relationships and a positive reputation with our community and local organisations, who in turn have then been committed to, and invested in, the running of the Settlement.


We are the pillar of the community that has been here donkeys’ years. Community work takes a lot of effort, a lot of trust, it takes a lot of time… We are that rock in the community, a community anchor. People know we are here, and people can decide when they want to use us. By having an asset, having a freehold, we can continue thinking like that and continue to be part of lives of local people because we have the asset.’


Sticking to our roots and preparing for the future


The nature of owning an historical asset means that over the years it has undergone renovations – different extensions have been built, and various repair works taken place that have not always been of a high standard. As we are now in a healthy financial situation, we’re currently striving to renovate the asset and ensure there is accessibility for all to use the building. The weight of the task could arguably justify the Settlement looking to move to new premises, however, the longevity, embedded values, and relationships built has encouraged us to stay where we are and invest in our current asset.


‘We have had discussions with trustees when looking at redeveloping the building, one of the options was to sell up and move away, to buy something that was purpose built. That would suit our needs, our current needs, but no, there was a unanimous decision our roots are here in Battersea, the trust and reputation of KLS is here, and we would have to start all over again.’ 

To find out more about the work of the Settlement, you can contact Aaron via or 020 7223 2845 

Katherine Low Settlement were one of the organisations we spoke to for our research with Sheffield Hallam, which aimed to create a national picture of community asset ownership.

IDEAL Community Action’s experience of strategic review

Nick Bentley, co-founder of IDEAL Community Action, shares his experience of bringing in IVAR to lead a ‘strategic review’. 



What does strategy mean to you?


Having a clear understanding of – who we are as an organisation; what we want the organisation to become; what it will deliver; and how we will make that happen.



Why did you decide to have a strategic review?


IDEAL is still run by the founders of the organisation, which, although small in relation to the number of staff (2), was delivering way beyond its size in relation to numbers and results. The organisation structure was reliant on excellent partnerships and a very dedicated team of volunteers who had come through IDEAL’s project – The Domino Effect. We understood that for long-term sustainability, the organisation needed to go through a transition in order to accommodate the growth that was occurring within IDEAL’s projects. If we did not, we were placing the organisation and its projects in danger. The timing was also important as we had several new Trustees join the board, so it was the right moment to start to really establish the long-term direction of the organisation.



To what extent did the initial interview with IVAR change your view of your organisation and the challenges it was facing at the time?


The initial interview highlighted the need for us as an organisation to clarify what we were and to develop a way to clearly communicate this to the world. It also demonstrated that the vision and overall plan rested mainly in the minds of the co founders, making it hard for a board to evaluate and assist them in the delivering of the vision.



What changed in your organisation as a result of the strategic review? Did it stick?


The review (which involved staff, trustees and volunteers) provided us with a shake up, an opportunity to evaluate where we were, which was great in regards to the organisation’s achievements but also highlighted the problems of long-term sustainability due to the manner in which the organisation was structured and run being too concentrated on the co-founders.


The review provided the starting point from which the relationship between the board and staff has grown and strengthened providing a solid foundation for the organisation to grow. It resulted in a 3 year plan, with a clear overarching vision for what the organisation is seeking to become, and which is still guiding us. We have since received funding that has enabled us to employ two FTE staff, and doubled the numbers engaging with our projects and increased what we offer. The review started a process, it was up to us to continue with it. By doing so, we are managing the transition to being a larger and more sustainable organisation.



What advice would you have for another voluntary sector leader about to embark on a strategic review?


It was a difficult process as there was a lot of emotional investment, which was greatly aided by trusting the facilitator and the process. Maintaining an open mind and allowing for conflicting views was tricky but essential. Ensuring that you choose a time when you can be fully focused on the review; it was very easy to be drawn into day-to-day operational matters.

Spotlight UK’s experience of strategic review

Michaela Riley, Founder, Chairman, CEO of Spotlight UK, shares her experience of bringing in IVAR to lead a ‘strategic review’. 



What does strategy mean to you? 


Taking a step back and looking at where you are really heading, then planning the steps you need to take to get there.

Why did you decide to have a strategic review? 


To ensure we were not just treading water and being reactive. We wanted to take a proper look at the work we wanted to be undertaking to ensure our team was set up correctly and aware of the way we had to go to achieve our goal.



What changed in your organisation as a result?


We restructured the management structure and shared out the workload slightly differently.



What advice would you have for another voluntary sector leader about to embark on a strategic review? 


It is an excellent idea, as it gives you confidence that you are heading in the right direction and set up correctly to achieve your goals.


Will this completely overwhelm my time?

We asked the leaders of three organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 


Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)


‘Making the decision on merger as a sustainable way forwards for our adoption service was very time-consuming.

However, the Board engaged a facilitator to ensure that time would be effectively managed through a staged process, which meant that I, as a relatively inexperienced Chair, would not have an overwhelming time commitment.’





Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK


‘Yes. It will overwhelm you and you will almost certainly underestimate the time and energy required to make it happen.’ 




Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement


‘There is a lot to do but some of it is very administrative, especially the due diligence work, and HR focussed if you are transferring staff.

So it depends if you have someone to delegate the bulk of this work to. It is also important to follow a good process and it’s possible to bring in someone to help manage this as there are experienced consultants who do this. I think as CEO it’s important to keep a clear overview and to be very alive to relevant developments and this is harder if you are also doing the bulk of the detailed work. So the short answer is that it need not be overwhelming but it is an important piece of work and takes months not weeks.’





How will I know if it’s the right thing to do?

We asked the leaders of three voluntary organisations that we have supported with merger to share their thoughts: 


Joanna Holmes
Chief Executive of Barton Hill Settlement


‘It depends a little bit on the circumstances. However, you need to trust your instincts. 

Does it make you feel excited and give you a strong feeling that bringing the organisations together creates something more for the people you serve than you can achieve separately? Can you imagine describing the new organisation to different people quite simply so that it feels like a natural fit and a positive move? If you still have doubts I would advise listing them carefully and going through them with senior staff or Board members until you are sure, as it will be hard if you are not completely convinced.’





Gillian Santi
Former Chair of the Independent Adoption Service (IAS)


‘The organisation was under increasing financial pressure and the Board agreed that merger was the best way forward.

Structured conversations with IVAR assured me that I was making the right decision and that there was a good match between the two charities.’





Laurie Rackind and Neil Taylor
Chief Executive and Trustee of Jami UK


‘If you don’t already know if it’s the right thing to do … then it’s probably not!

We had a very simple vision – to create a single service. Had our vision included anything that needed debate, then we would most likely have failed to complete the process. Whatever the challenges and disagreements (and there were plenty), we never doubted that we were striving for the right goal. Four years on, we still question how we should do things and what we should do … but we never question why we did 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.

Learning in responsive grant making – Thinking out loud

‘Good learning’ – useful, thorough and relevant – can help make responsive grant making a reality. In the run up to IVAR’s 2017 Evaluation Roundtable we have been looking into theory and ideas that might help us figure out just what good learning looks like.


One of these ideas is the ‘learning organisation’. This is essentially an organisation which actively creates opportunities for knowledge and intelligence to shape day-to-day practices and future direction, and embeds learning within its culture (IVAR 2015).


The idea was big in the 90s and early 2000s. It was taken into many different disciplines and sectors which means it’s hard to find a single definition or method.[i] But there is consensus that what really distinguishes a learning organisation is where acquired knowledge, skills and experience translate into changes to the way organisations achieve their goals.


The literature on learning organisations is very much focussed on for profit-organisations which means it’s hard to apply lessons directly to the grant making sector. More recent literature specifically focussed on philanthropy from the US has moved away from the idea of the learning organisation and refers almost exclusively to strategic learning – the use of data and insights to influence decision making about strategy. Linked to strategic learning, is the idea of emergent learning, which helps people turn learning into practice by focussing on the work habits and practices that help or hinder learning.


While the literature does not give us a definitive answer as to what good learning looks like in responsive grant making, it does outline some basic building blocks which help turn learning into action:


  • Culture – Good learning requires an enabling culture – a set of values and behaviours – which promote enquiry, reflection and dialogue.
  • Leadership – an enabling culture is very much linked to leadership, since leaders play a key role in establishing cultures which support learning, remove barriers, empower staff and demonstrate positive behaviour.
  • Systems and processes – Includes anything from databases to team meetings, to capture, use and share learning are also essential.

Between now and the 2017 Roundtable in May, we’ll continue to mine the literature for ideas and we’ll also be conducting a survey of trust’s and foundation’s evaluation practice and creating an in depth teaching case to further explore these issues.


[1] For a useful overview see


 Click here for more information on the Evaluation Roundtable.