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Covid-19: What funders can do this week

Last week, IVAR and London Funders issued a joint blog on what was learned from the funding response to the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, and the Manchester Arena bomb. At the heart of this learning – and of the statement of solidarity with the sector signed by so many funders over the last days – is a commitment to trust, flexibility and urgent action; with a premium on being nimble and proportionate. 


The challenge now is to put this into practice.  


Conversations over the last few days with organisations on the ground, as well as and with individual trusts and foundations, highlight the speed of change and the intense pressure felt by all service delivery charities and especially small organisations working with vulnerable people and communities. From these conversations, as well as IVAR’s past research and the actions already taken by many funders, we suggest five practical ways in which funders can make a real difference – this week – to their own grantees:


  1. Be bold – trust your grantees to know what is needed and to do it. All funders put a lot of effort into assessment and selection. Now is the time to have real confidence in the judgements you made by converting all project or restricted grants into unrestricted funding. Or to restrict them as broadly as is compatible with your own charitable objects – ‘our funding must still be used to benefit children and young people’ or ‘these funds can only be spent on work in Scotland’.
  2. Be generous – organisations are facing immediate additional costs in achieving the difficult balance between responding to need and keeping their volunteers and staff as safe as possible. Appeals are happening and emergency funds are being set up. But, with the best will in the world, it will take some time to raise money and get it out to the people on the ground. And the need – especially for smaller organisations, with few or no reserves – is immediate. Even a relatively small emergency grant, sent this week without being asked for, would be a huge gesture of support. For smaller organisations it would be a lifeline, helping to bridge the gap until formal emergency funds start to flow.
  3. Be genuinely flexible – if you can’t convert to unrestricted grants, don’t ask grantees to call for permission to redirect funding or shift priorities within their current grant. Tell them, in writing, that they can move funds between budget headings as they need to and tell the story of what they have done when this is all over. Many of them have multiple funders, all keen to help. But it’s their clients, communities, volunteers and staff that need their attention right now. Deeper conversations about ‘what next’ can come later.
  4. Be available – if you absolutely have to speak to grantees, or they need to contact you, make sure that they can get straight through to someone who knows about their grant and has sufficient authority to act. Managers, especially in small organisations, are fighting fires on all fronts at the moment. Any contact with funders needs to be supportive, well-informed and efficient.
  5. Be reassuring – most funders have already told their grantees that instalments will be paid without reports, for now. But tackling Covid-19 is calling for social and economic interventions across the world that were unthinkable three months ago and that will persist for many months. Realistically none of us – grantees or funders – can be held accountable for achieving outcomes that we agreed before the virus hit. Tell your grantees now that you know this and will take full account of it in your reporting requirements. More practical ideas will follow shortly from the joint Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and IVAR project on better reporting.


Covid-19: What can funders learn from previous emergency responses?

In 2018, IVAR and London Funders published a report looking at the key features of funders’ grant-making responses to the Grenfell Tower fire, the London Bridge and Borough Market attacks, and the Manchester Arena bomb. 


In response to coronavirus, London Funders is bringing funders together to produce a collaborative and aligned response, supporting the needs of civil society organisations. To inform this response, and ensure that previous insights are not ignored, we have collated what we learnt from past emergencies.


We found that across a number of the collaborative funds set up in response to the emergencies, funders stepped outside their normal practices in a range of different ways, most notably:


  • Commitment to speed
  • Light-touch application and monitoring
  • Managing risk through relationships
  • Collaborative delivery and delegated decision-making
  • Flexible funding


These five bullets capture a particular approach to grant-making, one that is sensitive and attuned to beneficiaries. It is highly relational, rather than contractual; it places a premium on trust; and it suggests a kind of common endeavour, where the assets of the funder (in this case, money) are combined with the assets of grantees (their work) for the common good.


Being effective’ in these circumstances does not mean delivering a perfect grant programme that no-one can question or criticise.


But it does mean finding a way to direct money quickly and intelligently to where it appears to be most needed – often in a complex and changing situation, where extensive consultation may be impossible. Drawing on the words of organisations and groups in receipt of emergency funding, we can understand ‘effectiveness’ in this context as meaning ‘straightforward, easy, quick and trusting’.


Few of the funders that played a part in the emergency responses expected to be taking on this role. 


But they saw a gap in support for community organisations and some independent and public funders decided to step in.


We identified five conditions, principles and ways of working that may now help others get money quickly and intelligently to community organisations:


  • Active networks to support collaboration: In the context of emergency situations, it makes sense for funders to do all they can to work together – and pre-existing funder networks (like London Funders) or close working relationships provide a foundation for them to co-operate and to move quickly.
  • Leadership and facilitation: A quick and coherent response calls for some organisations to be ready to take a lead in framing and facilitating collaborative responses. These roles may best be played by smaller, more nimble funders, characterised by clear values, internal relationships of trust, confident and supportive leadership, small teams and – critically – a shared understanding of risk. Their willingness to act decisively appears to work particularly well for larger, generalist funders, especially those that feel a special responsibility to respond to public emergencies. Some have established procedures to quickly set aside a funding pot, and all operate at a scale where decisions about redirecting staff capacity can be made at executive level. But ‘distance from the ground’ and internal structures and hierarchies can make it more difficult for them to move nimbly in framing or leading a collaborative response.
  • Finding out what is needed: Emergency funding is designed to respond to the immediate. But the need for speed can mean that initiatives are developed without structured consultation. Funders can respond to this challenge by using existing local knowledge – including working with local and national voluntary sector infrastructure bodies – and bringing experience and an open mind.
  • Simple, supportive processes: The funding process needs to be as simple as possible for applicants under severe personal and professional stress. This can be achieved through active outreach; a simplified application process; relationship-building and conversation; light-touch due diligence; swift decision-making; and simple monitoring arrangements.
  • Readiness to manage unexpected challenges: Emergency funding efforts will inevitably hit some unexpected difficulties; these need to be dealt with in a straightforward way by the partners involved. Funders too are operating outside what is normal for them: ‘No-one knows how to do this: the only shield is to be genuinely doing the best we can – and constantly listening and learning so we can do better.’


Over the last decade there has been much talk of funders trying to become less burdensome, more straightforward and quicker in their dealings with applicants and grantees. For that to happen, funders need to be ruthlessly clear about the purpose and necessity of their processes. The positive examples that we have seen – those described in The possible, not the perfect and, more recently, in our account of the Tudor Trust’s work in Hartlepool – weren’t rushed or haphazard. The preparation and execution were characterised by care, attention to detail and great sensitivity. But, critically, they were nimble and proportionate, sending a clear signal to others about what is possible when you are prepared to step outside the normal.


As part of our own efforts at IVAR to support the voluntary sector and civil society, we will be working alongside funders and their funded organisations over the coming months. We are committed to capturing learning about different responses; if you would like to be part of that, please get in touch with


London Funders are coordinating a funder statement on Covid-19, recognising that this outbreak is an exceptional event that will have an impact on civil society groups and to offer reassurance funders stand with the sector during this time. Find out more and sign up here.


This blog is jointly hosted by IVAR and London Funders.