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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 www.ivar.org.uk/covid-19-briefings

5 things that help communities turn ideas into action

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

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


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

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

1. Relationships


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


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


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

 

2. Starting where people are


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

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

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


3. Supporting adaptation


Remain adaptable to need and level of support.


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


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


4. Spreading the word and sharing ideas

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

 

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


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

 

5. Practical support


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


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


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


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

“Surviving a merger was the biggest test of my career”

“Surviving the merger process is down to commitment, a sense of humour – and a decent supply of biscuits.”

In 2017 – Rural Action Yorkshire and North Yorkshire and York Forum – merged to become Community First Yorkshire. Leah Swain, CEO of Community First Yorkshire, talks in the Guardian Voluntary Sector Network about her experience of leading this merger.

Read the article here.




Drowning in jargon? Squeaky ducks may be the answer

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


What’s the problem?


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

 

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

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

IMG_0186

 

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


Getting it wrong, then right


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

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

 

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


Some more examples from the North East


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

 

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

 

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


A new language altogether?


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

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.

What works for setting up cross sector partnerships?

Two voluntary sector leaders taking part in our Building Health Partnerships: Self-care programme share what they think works when setting up cross-sector partnerships. 

 

Dr Simon D Hankins
CEO, BS3 Community Development (formerly Southville Community Development Association)

 

‘Patience, building trust, respect, recognising the expertise that exists within each partner organisation, identifying and working to achieve mutual benefits, stumbling across people with the appropriate mind-sets and attitudes and people that you feel that you can work with and, overlaid with a huge dose of realism are, for me, all key components in establishing partnership working between the voluntary and public sectors.

From my experience at BS3 Community Development charity, to achieve a targeted, short-lived or enduring working relationship with parts of the public sector, it takes time, lots of time; it requires patience from all involved as we get to know one-another and build trust and confidence in each other, after all, why would you work with someone you don’t know or with an organisation that you have no idea how good a quality their services are? However, the rewards can be immense for all parties and particularly the people that you are setting-out to work with, support, help or whatever it is that is being developed; so it can be worth the effort as long as the statutory sector and VCSE (Voluntary, Community and Social Enterprise) sector partners approach the development of the working relationship on an equal-voice and mutual respect basis.’



 

Jacqui Bremner
Herefordshire Carers

 

‘I think true partnership working is when you know that you both work as hard for your partner to succeed in the joint venture, as you do for your own organisation, because you know that failing impacts on you both!!’



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.’

 

 

 

 

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.
 
 

Funders and funded in harmony?

Steven attended an Evaluation Roundtable event in Scotland in early October. Here, he shares his reflections on the relationship between ‘funders’ and ‘funded’. 

 

Funders never talk to each other. Funders all have totally different requirements. Funders don’t want a relationship with the charities they fund.

 

These are some myths that circulate in the charity sector. But how true are they?

 

Evaluation Support Scotland has been working with charities and funders in Scotland to measure and report on their impact for the last 12 years. In that time we’ve seen many changes for the better. To be fair, funders have always wanted to make a difference with their funding. But now they are cannier about joining up to make that difference.

What do I mean by joining up?

Joined up requirements: In 2010, the Scotland Funders’ Forum worked with Evaluation Support Scotland to produce Harmonising Reporting. This is good practice tools and guidance about making charity reporting more useful and less burdensome.

 

Funders realised that they usually want to know the same things from the charities they fund: What did you do? What difference did you make? What did you learn?

 

This realisation led to more harmony in funder reporting requirements. Indeed some funders in Scotland are happy to receive a report a charity has written for another co-funder– thus saving time and maximising learning.

 

Joined up with each other: Funders are more willing to learn from each. For example Walking the Talk is a resource produced by a learning set of seven funders about how they use their evidence to influence policy and practice. Learning set members said the process of learning together was as useful as the product they wrote.

 

Another example: Getting the Best from External Evaluations came about after funders got together to share their warts and all experiences of commissioning external evaluations. They have created a resource to help their funder peers avoid common pitfalls.

 

Joined up with funded organisations: Once upon a time, funders spent a great deal more time with charities they didn’t fund (processing applications) then those they did! Now that balance is shifting. Funders want to build relationships with their grantholders to understand impact and to harvest learning about what works – and what doesn’t. They have grantholder sections on their websites and talk to grantholders when they can.

 

Here are three examples of funders and funded working together:
  1. Breaking the Pattern resources about evaluating prevention work were produced together by the Voluntary Action Fund and funded women’s aid groups.
  2. The Self-Management Fund worked with their grantholders to produce Top tips for funders – simple ideas of how to get the best from the funding relationship.
  3. This recent paper on Reporting on Core Funding was produced by a diverse group of charities and funders. They came together to share challenges and solutions. The paper is the result of their collective wisdom.

The world of funding is not quite perfect yet. There are still some discordant notes amongst funders and funded!

 

But the funding music is becoming sweeter. And the benefits are clear. By being more joined up funders make better decisions, make more effective grants and make more of a difference for people and communities. And that’s a song worth singing.

 

Steven Marwick
Director, Evaluation Support Scotland
steven@evaluationsupportscotland.org.uk

 

For more information about Harmonising Reporting see this latest progress update.