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Where to start when everything is so uncertain

In this 10-minute blog, Ben and Sara explore the idea of ‘alignment’ and how it could help trusts and foundations to navigate uncertainty. 

Focusing on ‘impact’ is backwards – we need to look ahead

Ben Cairns, Director of IVAR

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, we have heard from staff in trusts and foundations about often frenetic searches for information and inspiration to help them see the right way forward. As if more data might provide the answer to often overwhelming choices about priorities and preferences.


In thinking about how to support people through this unprecedented period – one for which there was no rehearsal – we have been sharply reminded of a project that crystallised IVAR’s thinking about what it really takes for foundations (and organisations of any kind) to manage well in uncertainty and complexity. In particular, of the critical importance of alignment: between mission and process; and between values and behaviours.

In 2014 we worked with Barrow Cadbury Trust trustees, staff, and partners to carry out an assessment of how the Trust was doing against its 2013-16 strategic plan. Some weeks into the process, during a conversation with trustees, we wondered out loud whether they might find it useful to frame their thinking about progress in terms of ‘learning’ rather than ‘impact.’ We were not suggesting that they adopt a cavalier attitude to what success looks like for a programme or initiative. But a focus on proving impact is essentially backward looking – ‘what were the inputs and what did they deliver?’ – and too often leads to sterile debates about causality and attribution.  While a concentration on learning is forward looking and flexible – ‘what is all this telling us about how the changes we want to see can most effectively be achieved? And about how we might improve our contribution to pushing them forward?’.


Concentrating on learning is forward looking and flexible: ‘What is all this telling us about how the changes we want to see can most effectively be achieved?’ 

We saw Barrow Cadbury as an engaged funder, driven by its values and with a long-term perspective. Trustees were clear about wanting to ‘swim in murky waters’, shining a light on complex, intractable and unpopular issues. They embraced causes where success is far from assured and engagement often felt like both a moral imperative and an act of faith. They trusted that things of value would emerge, but did not prejudge what they might be and where they might lead. Framing questions about progress in terms of the learning that had been achieved, and its value in shaping their next steps, sat well with work that is unpredictable and emergent. And with an organisational mindset that accepts, and is comfortable with, the high level of ambiguity inherent in tackling complex social issues.

Seven years later, with uncertainty and complexity as far as the eye can see, we have found ourselves going back to these conversations. We know that, in their immediate responses to Covid-19, funders were able to step outside the normal: embracing unrestricted funding, lightening up reporting processes, trusting and talking more, and letting go of impact. For some, this has been relatively painless, and there is appetite to continue. For others, these actions have felt more counter-cultural. Lurking in the shadows is an anxiety that key stakeholders, be they trustees or grants staff, may seek to revert back to ‘business as usual’, which is often a shorthand for heavier processes, tighter demands in relation to reporting, and higher expectations in relation to impact.

Funders have stepped outside the normal – but lurking in the shadows is an anxiety that things may revert back to ‘business as usual’. 

In this context, our experience with the Barrow Cadbury Trust feels instructive. Our big takeaway from our time with them was that their approach – so much of which resonates with the culture of recent emergency responses – was made possible because they are properly aligned. Roots, values, beliefs, purpose, process, and behaviours – are all connected and interlinked. None of that guarantees everyone’s experience of the Trust will be a good one, or that they always get it right. But this alignment does enable everyone within a foundation to set aside the fruitless quest for more data to provide ‘the right answer’ or ‘the right thing to do’, and to work confidently to achieve the intelligent, compassionate and flexible responses that are now called for, by focusing instead on: “given who we are, what we believe and care about, what we have heard and learned and what we are seeing right now  – what should we do next?”.

The secret is alignment, but what does this mean?

Sara Llewellin, Chief Executive of Barrow Cadbury Trust

Alignment is crucial for any organisation to be successful in pursuing its vision and achieving its mission. In our particular case, the vision derives very clearly from the Quaker social justice belief system and the values inherent in it. Over the past century, the fundamental values of the Trust have mainly been constant – but their manifestation in our work has been iterative, dynamic and organic. We aim to apply these values to the ever changing ‘present day’, so this means constantly updating and flexing what we do to reflect the rapidly changing external environment in which we operate. 


So, what do we mean by alignment and what are the key features needed to achieve it? Essentially, I would say people coming together to pursue a values-driven shared purpose. Alignment is achieved when all parties have the same prize in view and each plays their particular part in order to achieve more than any of us could alone. As the Barrow Cadbury Trust works to achieve structural change in injustice and inequality, this is a true imperative for us as – by definition – structural change can rarely be brought about by atomised or uncoordinated approaches. Or, indeed, by concentrating only on the grassroots or only on power elites.


For foundations, this means navigating and calibrating very carefully the power and trust dynamics between different parties so that resources, especially financial, are best used to facilitate change. Easy to say, but also easy to lose sight of when you control the resource base and can so easily slip into careless high-handedness.


Our approach to power sharing is to consult deeply and iteratively on what needs to change and how best to achieve it. Then, the money and other resources at our disposal are used to vigorously pursue that change.  For this to be most effective our board, our staff and those we work with need to be on the same page, confident of each other’s goodwill, able to be honest about what is going to plan and, crucially, what isn’t. And this is not a one-off task – we have to work at it in the spirit of solidarity all the time.

This is not a one-off task – we have to work in the spirit of solidarity all the time.

The image below shows how IVAR visualised alignment between our trustees and staff.

A diagram which shows foundation alignment approach.
An image which shows the alignment approach taken by the Barrow Cadbury Trust.

In our organisation, staff are appointed who demonstrate a personal lived commitment to our social justice values, although we are of all faiths and none rather than all Quakers as in the past. We don’t all agree all the time – what an echo chamber that would be – but for all of us this is not just a job and we do aim to go that extra mile to strengthen the organisations we work with and the hands of the change makers within them.


Good governance is key both to creating and to maintaining alignment.  In our model of work, this means the board needs to be comfortable with working longterm on knotty issues, rather than working in three-year cycles and then moving on to wholly new areas of work.  The board and senior management team need to be prepared to take risks with seeking out new solutions to old problems and also to tackle things which are very hard to measure.


The Trust has long prioritised speaking truth to power by enabling the voices of experts by experience to be heard in the corridors of power.  To make this happen we have to listen to, work alongside and understand those with varied perspectives and find our commonality from which to build solidarity. This is both the product of, and the goal of, values alignment at the core of our work.

We hope that this helps you to think about and understand alignment within your own organisation. You can read more about how foundations are putting learning at the heart of their responses to Covid-19 here 

How you make grants is as important as what you fund

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the  fourth of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Kate Peters (Community Foundation for Surrey) to share her reflections.


Remember March? The world turned upside down, and we all had to come to terms with living a totally different kind of life, separated from loved ones and our normal routines. Meanwhile, the voluntary sector was not only stepping up to be a lifeline to thousands of our vulnerable neighbours but facing a disaster in terms of lost income. Community fundraising was cancelled and contracts and grant funding were put into question as projects became undeliverable.


The Community Foundation for Surrey launched a Coronavirus Response Fund on 26th March. We made our first awards after only 6 days on 1st April. Six months and £3million of grants awarded later, what have we learned from the experience?


It’s not just the money


Although the money was obviously critical, what we heard from our grantees back in April was how important it had been to groups to know someone was going to help. A number of key funds closed to applications at that time–just knowing we were there for them was really valuable.


It was not a big job to send a message to all our grantees, stating that whilst we understood that projects might pause or even fail, we would be flexible with reporting and changed delivery. That was one less thing for grantees to worry about and an element of funding that could stay in the budget. It is a message I still need to reiterate to grantees as their grant reports come due and I always sense their relief.


So, what did we learn? – How you make grants is as important as what you fund. Our impact as a Foundation can be seen in the invisible, intangible support we give to our groups.


Keep it simple


Keeping the criteria for the Response Fund simple and flexible made it much easier for us to be inclusive and responsive. As a Community Foundation we have a large range of funds with sometimes very targeted aims. Working with one Fund was refreshing and made it a lot easier to make quick decisions.


So, what did we learn? –  We need to look at the criteria for our programmes and ask: can we simplify for the benefit of our applicants – and for us?


Relationships, not process


The biggest factor enabling us to make quick decisions was our knowledge of our applicants and grantees that has built up over years. We could cut down the length of our application forms and take a lighter touch approach to due diligence because we know these groups; we know they can deliver good work. 


But what about the groups we don’t know so well? And the pop-ups and small un-constituted groups? We worked with the support groups, including the CVS network, which agreed to act as fund holders for small or new groups. These local support bodies knew what was happening in their areas and their advice and intelligence allowed us to be confident in our grant-making.


So, what did we learn? – Investing our time in getting to know our grantees pays off. Being part of the local sector and networked with the key players is invaluable. We must make time to get beyond the forms and reports and build relationships.


Even more relationship building


Those groups, who we already knew struggle with accessing our funds, were left behind in the initial stages of the Response Fund. While experienced applicants can quickly jump on a new funding stream, those groups for whom grant funding is an unfamiliar world could not take advantage of our support in the same way.


So, what did we learn? – There is an opportunity to take something good out of the crisis; more and better relationships with groups which don’t traditionally look to Foundations for funding.  We must take time to promote and offer support to inexperienced groups when launching any programme to ensure everyone gets a fair chance. We have made a commitment to do better and we will.


What Next?


We focused our Covid-19 grant-making on being there for our community; a rapid response, enabling groups supporting vulnerable people to just keep going. Response to a crisis is not the same as long term grant making, but there are good lessons we can take from the experience to inform how we make better grants for the long game.

Next Thursday (12th November), in the fifth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Andre Clarke describes how Comic Relief is driving forward an approach to funding that is rooted in trust: ‘we recognised timelines, expenditure and goals set out in existing grant agreements might need to shift to reflect the changing context, and we made that easy to do’.

If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email

Old dogs, new tricks?

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the second of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Oliver French (Lankelly Chase) to share his reflections.



The pandemic has given fresh energy to some long-held frustrations with foundation practice. It’s not the first time that demand for trust-based relationships, core funding, flexibility, responsiveness, light-touch monitoring and shared reporting frameworks have come up, and there have been many stalled attempts to evolve funder practice. Whatever the radical fringes and self-image of the philanthropic world look like, foundations have generally proved themselves conservative and resilient institutions, in that our processes and practices (and personnel?) change at a glacial pace, and power is rarely shared or distributed.

But a national medical and social emergency, coupled with a summer of direct action and debate about racial justice, has put foundations’ structures and practices under more acute stress than before. It remains to be seen which orthodoxies will spring back and which we might have lost forever – willingly or otherwise. Could we be in the middle of an evolutionary leap, where before we’ve only managed small steps? What stopped us changing before, and are those structures still in place?

To figure this out, at Lankelly Chase we’ve been trying to tune into change at the level of ‘how’ and ‘who’, rather than just ‘what’. A new emergency fund here, or the suspension of an outcomes evaluation there, will have quite a low ceiling. But the remaking of a trustee board, the redistribution of decision-making rights in local places, and the creation of new centres of power have much greater transformative potential. As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.


As individuals, as organisations and as a sector, we should not just be looking to ‘build back better’ on the outside, but from within too: rather than seeing change as something that we create, support, resource or manage, it’s something that we seek to model and embody in the ways that we behave.

Complexity and adaptation


It’s a normal human tendency to see the things which confirm our worldview and minimise those which challenge it. For our part at Lankelly Chase, we’ve long held that social change work isn’t characterised by simplicity or linearity, but by complexity and unpredictability. Covid didn’t introduce uncertainty to our world, but it has certainly increased our sensitivity to it. It’s also given us and our partners more freedom to sit with ‘not knowing’ and lack of control, and released some of the usual pressure to reach for comforting but spurious measures of performance or effectiveness.

For us, coronavirus has been further evidence that we’re living and working in a complex environment, and we’ve been trying to deploy our resources and attention accordingly. This means pivoting away from a focus on things like planning, delivery and assessment; and looking instead towards sensemaking, responding, and adapting to continuous change. We’ve sought to do this collectively, alongside networks in the places and partnerships we’ve invested in – not trying to ‘manage’ or to ‘assess’ but to inquire; and finding that “what have you noticed?” is a much deeper question than “what have you done?”. Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go. We’ve been trying to do this continuously and ‘in the moment’ (about which we’ve published a series of blogs), rather than waiting for the benefit of hindsight.


Instead of meticulous planning and retrospective evaluation, we’ve been able to act (and fund) with fewer conditions and more trust, and focus on putting the architecture in place to learn as we go.


Back to the future(s)

As the pandemic has unfolded, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate conversations about crisis response from those about a post-Covid future. After an initial flurry of activity, the demand for quickfire cashflow support has died down (for now…) amongst Lankelly Chase’s funded partners (more on our approach here), and our hastily convened ‘emergency’ team has found itself inexorably drawn into deeper questions like “when is an emergency no longer an emergency?”. We’ve been forced to consider what kind of future we’re (re)building towards, what kind of environment we’ll be operating in, how our new context will be shaped, and who gets to decide.

At times the number of flatpack futures being offered has felt overwhelming, as thinkers of all stripes offer different visions of what society should look like. We’ve felt very aware of who has a platform, whose voices are loudest and whether they’re the same ones we usually hear, which is why initiatives like the Lottery’s ‘Emerging Futures Fund’ are so important – not just for centring different voices, but also for unashamedly investing in enquiry and imagination.

At a very simple level, the Covid-19 pandemic has unlocked charitable resources that might otherwise have remained in bank accounts or questionable investment funds. It’s given us both the opportunity and the cover to do more, more quickly, than we had originally planned, including undertaking bigger experiments with devolved power and participatory grant making. The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.


The test now will be how we can respond to our tendencies to slip back into the old habits we’ve professed to dislike, and ensure that what’s been proved possible becomes normal – even essential.

Next Thursday (5th November), in the fourth in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Kate Peters describes how the Community Foundation for Surrey has begun to embrace a different philosophy of grant-making: ‘How you make grants is as important as what you fund’

If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email

Promoting equitable, inclusive and transparent grant making

At a recent Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice session we asked what working practices people are hoping to retain from lockdown; and what they are looking to improve or introduce as they approach autumn and winter. In the second of our blog series addressing these questions, we ask Himali Dave (Urban Movement Innovation Fund) to share her reflections.


Despite the stark social, political and economic moments of the past year, we have seen incredible resilience and drive from our grantees. This has prompted us to reflect on our role as a funder and convener, and how best we can support organisations – not only to continue to meet their own strategic objectives during this period, but also to create a collective impact that is greater than the sum of its parts. Reflecting on what we have seen emerge with and through our partners, below are 3 key practices we are looking to retain and grow.

1. Agile and responsive grant making


We have realised that our collaborative grant making philosophy itself has been key to enabling UMIF to respond quickly, from supporting grantees to adapt and pivot projects through to responding to the field’s resource and capacity needs to operate in their new respective realities. By consciously minimising the associated layers of bureaucracy that often comes with grant making, we have seen more trust built with the field, as well as increased scope for creativity.


By consciously minimising the associated layers of bureaucracy that often comes with grant making, we have seen more trust built with the field, as well as increased scope for creativity.


Examples of this can be seen in global response grants which went from proposal to approval process within two months, including grants enabling organisations across India, South Africa and Mexico to virtually connect grassroots allies under lockdown. We need to hold onto this as a guiding principle and strive for high levels of collaboration and continued dialogue with grantees, and in doing so promote equitable, inclusive and transparent grant making.

2. Building shared ownership of learning agendas


Whilst the pandemic has overhauled ‘business as usual’, it has also sharpened the focus on key questions which often preoccupy funders and NGOs alike: “What are we learning? And how are we putting that learning into practice?”

In light of the fact that we are a relatively new fund, with most grants not yet having reached the one year mark, we have used this opportunity to embed a learning approach into new projects early on in their development. Through this process we have had some incredibly transparent conversations with grantees around their measurement-related anxieties – a common concern within movement building work, which is often hard to measure and attribute to individual projects. A key outcome from these conversations has been shifting the focus from ‘success’ to ‘learning’, which has really encouraged our grantees to consider metrics as a positive and experimental tool to accompany key learning questions, rather than donor-pleasing exercise.


A key outcome from these conversations has been shifting the focus from ‘success’ to ‘learning’, which has really encouraged our grantees to consider metrics as a positive and experimental tool to accompany key learning questions, rather than donor-pleasing exercise

3. Fostering virtual communities


Transitioning to a virtual operating space has not only fundamentally shifted how we interact with each other, but it has posed an additional challenge for UMIF as a funder that seeks to convene the field and foster collaboration and networking.

In order to maintain and grow the momentum within the community, we have hosted virtual convening sessions through the year, bringing together 55 participants from civil society and philanthropy. Despite the successes we have had in developing various strategies and collaborative projects remotely and across multiple geographies, ‘Zoom-fatigue’ is a real challenge and something that we have had to be mindful of. We have tried to apply the same principles as we would do for in-person sessions, with a unique offering for each convening: we bring in external facilitators, regularly check in and gather feedback, and encourage dialogue and interaction through breakout sessions. Building on grantee feedback, we have also tried to support regular points of contact in between these moments through newsletters examining best practices.

As we approach 2021, and with lockdowns most likely to remain a regular feature in our lives, we need to hold onto and smarten our utilisation of these technologies and techniques to ultimately strengthen and deepen the connectivity amongst our field of grantees.

Next Thursday (29th October), in the third in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Oliver French, from Lankelly Chase, will reflect on what he and colleagues have been learning about what’s been made visible, possible and necessary as the covid-19 pandemic has unfolded.

If you are interested in joining our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations, please email

Making ‘relational’ real: Our experience of funding during Covid

They say moving to a new house is one of the most stressful things you can do. For others it’s starting a new job. And as everyone knows now, living through a pandemic has been a new extreme of stress. But imagine all those things at once.


We were told to work from home after I spent less than 2 weeks at The Robertson Trust. I barely had time to learn everyone’s name (sorry colleagues). I had just moved myself up from London to Glasgow. All my stuff (plus partner) was in a mountain of boxes in our tiny Greenwich flat, ready for us to move into our new house on the 24th of March. That’s right – the day after lockdown.


I’m glad to say that we did manage the move – but not without a huge amount of stress, panic and surviving for more than a month with no furniture.  

At the same time, The Robertson Trust was experiencing its own stresses: a change in organisational structure, a new strategy to work out and staff adjusting to working from home.


Reflecting on the last six months, one thing I know now is the antidote to stress is being kind to yourself and asking for support when needed. I have certainly leaned on friends and family for support and given into a lot of creature comforts during lockdown. But, can we, as a Trust extend a sort of organisational kindness?


A new (kinder) approach?


We know that many Third Sector organisations have struggled to raise funds or generate income throughout lockdown and that many have had to radically change the way they operate. At the same time, they are seeing more demand from the communities they serve. In short, the charities we support, and the people who work or volunteer in them, are having a tough time.


We already knew that one of the ideas we wanted to employ in our new way of working was being ‘relational’. While principles on paper can be often be meaningless, the need for a relational approach has really come alive over the last six months. Although developing and implementing a new strategy during lockdown hasn’t been easy, I don’t believe we would have lived this principle so fully if it had been at any other time.


I see ‘relational’ as being supportive or kind – values that continue to be present in abundance across communities in Scotland. And just like going the extra mile for friends and family during lockdown; the same is true of the charities we work with.

I see ‘relational’ as being supportive or kind … just like going the extra mile for friends and family during lockdown; the same is true of the charities we work with.

As part of developing our new strategy, we have reviewed our communication. The way we communicate externally is now friendlier, supportive and more straightforward. We’ve also thought about accessibility and given options for people to highlight additional support needs.


A new strategy gave us time to assess our relationships and our role as a funder. We proactively build and maintain relationships in a wide range of sectors. We listen to how areas that we are interested in supporting have been impacted by Covid and how, using our assets as a funder and connector, we can help to make a difference.


Through the development of our funds, we reviewed the way we considered applications: We thought hard about the experience from an applicant’s point of view. We now have clearer and more transparent application and assessment processes that are proportional to the amount organisations receive.


Using Trust in Learning


Our approach to learning from our funds is based on relationships and trust. We will no longer ask our grant holders to tell us what outcomes they want to achieve. We will no longer ask them to measure those outcomes at the end of their grant period. We trust them to know the needs of their communities, to spend their grant wisely and to do a good job.

We trust our grant holders to know the needs of their communities, to spend their grant wisely and to do a good job.

We know that many people working in the third sector spend too much time writing funding applications and reporting on that funding. If a project or service has a melting pot of funders with different reporting requirements, that can mean a huge amount of time away from frontline work.


We still want to hear from grant holders at the end of their grant, but we want to check in on their experience: What were they able to do with their funding? What went well? What challenges did they face? How can we help them to overcome these in the future?


Organisations we fund can also choose to report to us in a way that’s meaningful for them. We’re happy to speak on the phone or they can send us a video or a report they’ve already made. 


Part of our approach to learning, and the shift away from formal reporting, is about seeing the benefit of informal data. What will tell us more about an organisation – a list of outcomes that they may or may not have achieved, or an informal chat where they have free-reign to tell us everything about their work? I’m excited to see informal conversations and peer learning events sitting alongside more traditional methods of evaluation like surveys.

After all, we’re not here to monitor and regulate funding – we’re here to support organisations and learn alongside them.  

We’re not here to monitor and regulate funding – we’re here to support organisations and learn alongside them.

What next?


The only thing about the immediate future is its uncertainty. We don’t know when or how new restrictions will end. We don’t know how badly the third sector will be affected. We don’t know the long-term impact on communities. We do know, however, that the pandemic isn’t over, and the foreseeable future will continue to be tough for everyone.


Despite this, I believe lockdown has made us a kinder funder who looks to build strong relationships with the organisations we work with. We’ve really brought to life the principle of being relational and we will continue to put this principle in action.

Hazel is a member of our Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice for learning and evaluation staff in UK trusts and foundations. If you are interested in joining, please email

Next Thursday (22nd October), in the second in our new series of blogs about learning from funding during Covid, Himali Dave, from the Urban Movement Innovation Fund, will reflect on what she and colleagues have been learning about how best to support organisations to create a collective impact.

Joined at the hip: Why you can’t make good grants without investing in learning

All the italicised quotes here are taken from members of the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice – staff with lead responsibility for evaluation and learning within Trusts and Foundations.


At IVAR, we have long championed learning as a driving force for foundation strategy and practice. By ‘learning’, we mean ‘not monitoring, not impact assessment, not log frames, not descriptive reports, but proper focused consideration of truly mission-critical questions – about both strategy and practice – which lead to action’.


This discipline has never been more essential. In the face of rising need and existential threat to many sectors and services, the decision that each foundation makes about how best to use its relative financial stability has never felt more important. And to be the best that they can be, foundations need to be thoughtful and reflective. Which is why learning is critical: balancing data with intuition; combining evidence with instinct.


So, when we hear of foundations talking about the ‘choice’ to be made between making a grant or investing in learning, the alarm bells ring. For, in our experience of working with evaluation and learning staff through the Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice, they are providing deep and important insights. Their voices are essential.


Here are four things they have shared, that help make sense of what we are all facing: ‘an ongoing event with no clear exit point’.


  1. ‘“This is what we know now” is the most we can claim’

The pressure to find the right answer to ‘What next?’ is acute, not least because of the funding cliff edge facing many grantees. Set alongside this, though, is complexity and a series of unknowns. Although this is an extreme situation, social change interventions of all kinds are characterised by uncertain pathways within constantly changing contexts. Now and for the future, decision makers need to respect the complexity – to look, listen and pay attention – and avoid rushing to simple solutions too quickly: ‘the time for plans will come’.


Foundation leaders can support this iterative approach through the offer of spaces for thinking, reflection and sense-making, and opportunities to share ideas and insights so that they can be used to inform the complex choices and decisions we all face: ‘This is far from over. We need to allow time to step back, be patient and reflect’.


  1. ‘This is what we are picking up so far, so this is what we can do – what do you think?’

In the current crisis, evaluation and learning staff will offer best value if they are able to be agile and opportunistic, working with decision makers in a dynamic pattern of review cycles, making adjustments and improvements as they go, on a much shorter timeframe than would be normal within a three to five year strategy. Many foundations struggle to achieve the right balance between performance and accountability requirements, and the tolerance for flexibility and uncertainty that enables organisations to learn and change. Therefore, learning staff need explicit permission, encouragement and support if they are to present the kind of ‘work in progress’ intelligence that will enable foundations to retain the agility and responsiveness so many have shown in this crisis, for the longer term. Not least because there is no straight recovery line out of the current situation: as far as the eye can see, there is uncertainty and unpredictability.


  1. ‘Monitoring and evaluation information and other sources of data can only take us so far: it’s folly to expect to fully comprehend everything that is happening right now’

Covid-19 has exposed the fallacy of certainty. Like never before, it is apparent that we live in a complex and uncertain world. Our knowledge of it and our ability to predict it can only ever be partial. Evaluation and learning staff have a critical role to play in helping to steer their foundations away from the risk of becoming passive observers, content to gather and evaluate more data, and endlessly strategise, in the expectation that they will commit funding only once they can knowingly, with enough certainty, make a difference. Gathering and analysing information may provide some assurance that strategic and grant-making decisions are judicious, but these efforts are inevitably imperfect set against real-world complexity: ‘The challenges before us are immense. And funders need to make decisions and contribute now’.


  1. ‘Let go of impact’

Evaluation and learning staff have begun to reflect that fretting less about measuring or judging the impact of a grant has liberated grant-making: ‘We’ve just got to let it go on the impact front and talk about the importance of the work. Our questions need to be forward looking: “What’s being revealed?”, “What do we want to keep?”. And not “Did it work?” or “Was it value for money?”.’


And they are leading the way with framing powerful questions about how to deliver most value, both now and for the longer term: ‘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.’


Just like the organisations they support, funders are staring at an uncertain and volatile future. Some of the tools they conventionally use to support priority setting and decision-making feel slow, cumbersome and a poor fit to purpose. Whereas some of the behaviours and insights of learning staff are highly relevant, useful and usable. Making good grants and investing in learning are not alternatives – they go hand in hand. Learning is not an add on, it’s integral and essential.

Our next Evaluation Roundtable convening will be online on 1 December, with the theme of learning through complexity and uncertainty. If you are interested in joining this, or our more informal Community of Practice meetings, please get in touch with

Seeing with an applicant’s eye

15 weeks ago, we proposed five principles to guide funders in rising to the challenge of the unfolding Covid-19 crisis: be bold, be generous, be genuinely flexible, be available, be reassuring


Since then, we have seen genuinely progressive practice. Some have transformed their relationship with grantees, dismantling onerous reporting structures and proactively offering a range of financial and technical support. Others have overhauled their application processes, streamlining application forms, and radically speeding up decision making. More are testing the waters of unrestricted funding. Some have even publicised their willingness to meet fundraising costs in support of the effort to keep going. This new mood of agility, trust and common endeavour points the way to a healthier and more collaborative relationship between funders and the VCSE sector. We have seen what is possible in an emergency.


The challenge now – to both funders and the sector – is to nurture and grow these new behaviours into the future. A future that, as far as the eye can see, is likely to be characterised by uncertainty and unpredictability. A future that will require, therefore, sustained commitment to flexibility and creative adaptation. So, it is worrying that some VCSE organisations report signs of wobble and strain, even in the most open and agile of funders. Many of these concerns sit in the detail of application processes, not in the big strategic questions around ‘who we want to fund and why’.


Too much risk is still being delegated: VCSE organisations are dealing with very short application windows for emergency funds, undeclared opening and closing dates, and funds closing early: ‘It’s incredibly undermining. It’s like they think we don’t have to plan because we have nothing else to do’; ‘Honestly, it would be as helpful to ask us to write poem or a short story at the moment as it is to ask us to give a three-year projection’.


Application processes do not reflect the times we are facing: Application forms are losing their internal coherence and slipping out of proportion to the sums of money or the duration of grant:

‘I’ve just finished an application to a major national funder for 18 months funding. There were 18 substantive questions on top of all the usual organisational stuff. That’s a lot in itself. But most questions contained two or three sub-questions. I think I had to answer more than 50 questions in all’.

Many grants remain at least semi-restricted: Many short-term grant offers do look and feel more ‘general’. But not enough funders are offering complete flexibility to adjust in response to changing circumstances without coming back for permission:


‘Everything is changing so fast, the only way to survive and keep our services running is to be flexible. If funders believe we are ethical and competent, why wouldn’t they trust us to spend the money well?’.

Some grants staff are struggling: Even the best of published policies rely on how they are interpreted and implemented by grants staff:

‘All over their website, they talked about trust and flexibility – but the grants officer behaved just like they always do, asking for loads of addition information and insisting that we justify every detail, then not getting back to us when they said they would’.

Criteria don’t seem to be changing and continue not to be shared: Especially in the context of longer-term funding bids, VCSE organisations don’t know how they will be judged. What will be done with their answers to questions about their Covid-19 response: ‘Whatever we write now will be out of date long before any decision is made’. What do funders think a ‘good reserves level’ or ‘sound financial management’ is, in the wake of Covid-19? What are they expecting in terms of forward plans and projections?


Application processes are unwittingly restrictive and unhelpful. Application information is unwieldy or dispersed: ‘I often have to sign up for an account, copy and paste all the application questions into a Word document, then copy in information from several different guidance documents before I can start thinking about whether we can make a strong application’. Online forms are full of fiddly detail that is slow to complete: ‘I get it – funders need to be able to analyse application data. But are they really using all these individual boxes we’re filling in?’  And word limits are too tight: ‘Funders can’t realise how much time is wasted shaving words – we don’t have that time right now’.

Perfection is impossible right now. Like everyone, funders are learning how to live with uncertainty and working hard to adjust day-to-day practices to make the best contribution they can. But, for the foreseeable future, responding better doesn’t call for major strategic reviews or complex analysis and consultation. All it takes is a commitment to see with an applicant’s eye and a willingness to shoulder more of the burden of responding to the current crisis and getting funds out to those who need them most and can use them best. Even the trail blazers amongst foundations can hone their practice. And for those who have struggled to adapt, a few simple changes could make all the difference.


We would suggest five simple and practical ways to help lighten the burden. These actions can help to ensure that the progress made at a moment of crisis is sustained, and that practice doesn’t slip back as we enter an extended period of recovery and renewal.


  1. Drill down into your funding offer so that it is crystal clear. Ask only the questions you need to ask – and test them rigorously for clarity and overlap.
  2. Set achievable timetables – and stick to them. VCSE organisations need to plan too. And speed up your response time. Take the pressure off hard-pressed organisations by taking more on your own shoulders – by, for example, convening additional committee meetings, bringing in more assessment capacity, giving proper feedback to those you turn down.
  3. Think about how to ease the application process – corral your guidance, prune out rarely used data fields from your online forms, test and build in 20% leeway on your word limits, and introduce new, easier ways of hearing from applicants who are already under pressure.
  4. Be open about how applications will be judged. Show your workings and explain why. Invite challenge and consider new ways of making hard choices.
  5. Support your staff well. New behaviours will not take root unless they are properly encouraged and rewarded.


While it may be too soon for definitive answers on longer-term strategy, there is a real opportunity for a more collaborative approach to rethinking the future and, in particular, funding practices, many of which may no longer be fit for purpose. Over the coming months, we’ll be working on a new project with London Funders, a group of eight foundations, and VCSE organisations across the UK to identify opportunities for sustainable adaptations and innovations to funding processes and practices.


We’ve been producing regular briefings on the challenges faced by VCSE leaders, and the questions and opportunities this presents for funders. Read more at

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?




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.

Sleepout or sleep in: keeping up with the new funding environment

Streetlife took part in our Duty to Care? research project. We asked them about their recent experience of working with trusts and foundations.

Tell us about Streetlife

Streetlife is a youth work charity based in Blackpool, which assists vulnerable people between the age of 18-25 years old. Our aim is to enable and empower them to make informed choices and provide support via our emergency night centre, eight bed day centre and drop-in or lifeskill sessions.

What has changed about your work – and how you work with trusts and foundations – over the past five years? How have you responded to this?

In the past few years, our funding environment has changed quite drastically; funding for supporting young people that had originally been ring-fenced was lifted, and in 2014 all Local Authority funding ceased. This meant both Blackpool Foyer and Oasis night shelter had to shut down, so it was high-time we did a SWOT analysis and started exploring other funding opportunities. We managed to secure three years funding from Tudor Trust, one year funding from Amy Winehouse Foundation, and on-and-off funding from Lloyds Bank Foundation, CiN, Comic Relief and the Police and Crime Commissioning Fund that helped maintain salaries.

The world is changing so rapidly that it’s important we do too if we want to ride the tide and keep up momentum. We’ve adapted the way we recruit and work with volunteers: we capture people as soon as they start showing an interest, get them more involved with social media, and organise induction processes once a week so that volunteers can develop a better sense of the organisation.

We also ventured into community fundraising and raised our profile on social media – this is the fourth year we’re doing an annual sleepout, which raised 12k in its first year and saw over 200 people sign up within two years. This year we raised £43.5k and we are also planning our first charity ball.  As a result, businesses began showing an interest and we’ve started to see different kinds of people supporting us now.

What could trusts and foundations do differently to make your life easier?

The focus should be on fostering long-term relationships with funders, so that we can work together to develop a more proactive and scalable strategy. For example, The National Lottery Community Fund has been supporting us for four years and recognise that we need to support our overheads, so we can concentrate on what really matters.

A personal touch also helps a great deal – the Lloyds Enhance grant manager regularly comes to visits us, which means we’re able to have an open conversation and keep them informed of any new challenges before they become an issue. They’ve also invited us to the House of Commons to talk about our work, so we can be more involved at policy-level and garner more support.