Tweet about this on Twitter Email this to someone Share on LinkedIn
logo-ivar

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

Six ways VCSE leaders are adapting to Covid-19

Over the past 11 weeks, we’ve hosted peer support sessions for over 180 VCSE leaders across the UK. We’re publishing regular briefings about the challenges they are facing; we’ve also heard much about how these are being overcome.


In celebration of Small Charity Week, we wanted to share six ways in which VCSE leaders are adapting.

  1. Actively managing staff and volunteer welfare, by encouraging them to:

 

  • Take some time off
  • Build self-care into the working day
  • Find opportunities for social connection (e.g. daily quizzes, sharing a favourite book or photo weekly)
  • Keep a diary
  • Adopt a more flexible working pattern
  • Introduce a buddy system across the team to ensure people have someone they can check-in with regularly

 

In cases where staff have been furloughed, finding ways to include them so that they remain motivated and are aware of key organisational decisions/changes:

 

  • Inviting them to take part in remote team meetings
  • Rotating furloughed staff to reduce the emotional impact of not being at work
  • Swapping furloughed staff between peer organisations for skill sharing and volunteering purposes – informally or through Furlonteer, which has been set up to connect furloughed staff with charities who need their expertise and time

 

  1. Setting boundaries


Continuity of service provision – now or when restrictions ease – is the intended goal for most organisations, along with responding to the increasing needs of their beneficiaries. However, VCSE leaders are trying to set clear parameters when it comes to service adaptation to ensure they do not step too far away from their original mission, and that they have the appropriate capacity and skills to deliver: ‘Focus on what you’re good at and do as much of it as you can’.

 

For some, this is clear cut. Others are finding themselves ‘tip-toeing’ into new or altered activities (e.g. evening and weekend shifts), leading to deeper questions about organisational boundaries and, at times, the need to review charitable objectives: ‘We had one trustee say “you can’t do that”.  But we said “we have to do this to support people”. This might be something people have to think about – changing charitable objects’.

 

  1. Scenario planning

 

As things remain unclear and are constantly changing, many leaders are turning to scenario planning as a way of fulfilling their dual role of strategist and visionary. This ensures that long-term implications are being acknowledged without committing to a particular course of action, continuing to ‘take each day as it comes’

 

‘It’s important to not be over-planning for the future as we are still in uncertain times. Planning for what’s important for now, and what’s pointless for now is also as important.’

 

  1. Working together

Leaders are recognising that, by coming together to collaborate with partners, they can effectively coordinate services and strengthen the sector’s voice to highlight the impact of Covid-19 on organisations, communities and individuals:   

 

‘A natural reaction is to focus internally, but from experience, partnership working is a lifeline and will keep us afloat.’

 

 ‘All of this needs to be done with the thinking and humility that we’re all in the same boat and none of us have the perfect answer.’

 Examples include:

 

  • Signposting to alternate provision
  • Advocating for the needs of particular groups (e.g. the homelessness sector working with the Greater London Authority to address housing need)
  • Supporting people who they wouldn’t usually, because they know that the organisation who normally does this is inundated

 

  1. Listening

Some are investing time in actively listening to the changing needs of their beneficiaries, either through specific surveys or via ad hoc interactions.  This intelligence is being used to help shape organisations’ own responses as well as to ‘actually see what’s happening so that we have some data we can go back to government with … and say “some of the solutions you need to put in place are xyz”’.

 

  1. Talking to funders

VCSE leaders are having honest, open conversations with funders about what can and can’t be delivered, and what impact this will have on outcomes for existing grants and contracts.  While much of this has been initiated and enabled by funders themselves, it feels important to note the courage and clarity it requires from VCSE leaders to be able to make these decisions, and to articulate what is possible when under extreme pressure.

 

__________

 

For the foreseeable future, VCSE leaders will be called on to continually review and reshape their work – in line with shifting government guidance and increasing understanding of what existing and prospective beneficiaries need: ‘No one knows how to feel or respond at the moment. There is no right or wrong way to support people’.

 

In this context, VCSE leaders are remaining steadfast: holding their nerve; making clear, resolute decisions; balancing optimism with realism; and doing everything possible to protect the welfare and motivation of their workforce to ensure they can continue to deliver high quality – albeit slightly altered – services to those who need them most. 

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

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

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

Emergency vs the longer term

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

However, this comes with a set of challenging considerations: 

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

What will the role of unconstituted community groups be?

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

So…

 

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

 

Please do share your thoughts in the comments below.

 


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