Reflections from a funder on the frontline of grantmaking during COVID-19 in the UK – Part 2


Cassie Robinson


The narrative of civil society
Now more than ever, Trusts and Foundations should be investing in how to assemble and build a more visible narrative about what civil society has been doing during this crisis. It feels like civil society is barely being seen by some people, yet alongside our NHS, it is civil society that has its arms around people right now, catching people as they fall — what’s happening in response to Covid-19 goes way beyond what is happening in hospitals, and spills out into our communities.

We should be investing in building shared recognition and story telling of the energy in communities and the role that civil society is so crucially playing right now. And if we want to make alternative futures easier to envision and get feedback on, in part to show where resources need directing, then we need to invest in narrative work for that purpose too.

How we are having to work differently
It’s been interesting to see how we‘ve needed to work differently. Certainly at The National Lottery Community Fund many of the ways of working we’d been laying foundations for over the last few years now have a chance of becoming the norm. This is not simply because of the technology we have in place (though that has made remote working amazingly straightforward), or a much easier to use and more intelligent grant management system. It’s because our behaviours and ways of doing things have been propelled towards pace, greater candour, getting comfortable with agile certainty, and navigating ways to honour our governance yet adapt it for this new context we find ourselves in.

Most of all, we are having to be honest that we don’t know.

‘No one has the answers to these kinds of questions yet, because what so many disasters tell us is that the outcome is not foreordained. It depends on what we do, and that depends on how we read what’s happening and what we value and how that changes in a time of stunning upheaval.’[1]

There are lots of great insights in this report by IVAR about how London Funders had to adapt their way of doing things in response to the Grenfell disaster — though I do think it’s unhelpful to Trusts and Foundations to think Covid-19 requires the same kind of response. There are similarities, but that response was much more specific and focussed, a response to the current crisis requires many more moving parts and a lot more interdependent roles, over a much greater period of time.

At the moment one of the most common topics we are hearing our grantees request support for is technology. I think it would help if Trusts and Foundations applied different time horizons to how they approach their support in this area.

Immediate (the present) — In the immediate term most organisations need help with the basics — getting their own organisations set up to work remotely, advice on the basic digital tools available, and the confidence and capabilities to use them. This applies to the people who access their services or need their support too — finding ways to get them set up, in some instances with hardware too.

Short term (the next few weeks) — Some organisations are also thinking about how to adapt their services to be delivered online, or needing to design entirely new services in response to the crisis.

Medium term (the next few months) — Some organisations, like Catalyst, with a whole network of partners, are supporting organisations to do all of the above, and simultaneously, through the doing, learning and iterating (an important distinction from those just doing the thinking) are starting to build a new infrastructure for civil society.

Alongside this, I’m grateful that some people are paying attention to what technology is being done to us, and to the ways in which technology is changing our real-world interactions, and how that might play out over time. What might the consequences be of civil society going through a digital transformation so hastily? And what kind of civil liberties are being compromised through adoption of technologies being used to track Covid-19? It’s worth following this work if you are interested in these questions.

New kinds of problems to understand
Many of the challenges I’m hearing right now from civil society organisations, though disastrous and heartbreaking, are not surprising. Increases in demand, unable to meet those demands, ill-equipped to adapt their organisations, unsure how to survive themselves, and so on. What I’m only just beginning to get a picture of is some of the less obvious consequences.

One organisation who works with people with complex needs spoke about the difficulties posed by no longer having in-person access to their clients. When you are able to visit someone regularly you can pick up all kinds of cues based on their environment, their body language, even things like smell. That sphere of perception, that field of information has been so greatly reduced, and what help people really need is masked and an appropriate response hindered.

Food is another huge concern — but not just the immediate needs that people are likely already aware of. Food banks I’ve spoken to this week, whilst still in need of money and volunteers, are more worried about the longer-term supply of food. It seems like Trusts and Foundations should be investing in a more resilient food system — supporting local food producers and small scale farmers.

I’ve written about all the new kinds of grief we’ll need to process, hold and heal here.

Spaces to discuss dilemmas
Lastly, if it isn’t obvious from all of the above, what is really needed for Trusts and Foundations is a space and a way to candidly talk about the dilemmas we’re likely to be navigating. 

Some of the dilemmas I see in front of us now include —

  • To scale an emergency response things need standardising but in doing so you can erase different needs and contexts.
  • There is pressure to act with speed, but speed can mean you default to what is known and available, not necessarily what is best — and that kind of consideration can take more time.
  • The local and the national, the established and the new, the infrastructure and the organisers, the formal and the informal.
  • I’ve already mentioned above about the pressure for simplicity, but that can be reductionist and flattening, removing the chance of a more appropriate and longer-term response.
  • As a funder, who are we more accountable to? All the people who are regularly posting their opinions about funders? Or the people the civil society organisations we fund exist for? ( I know these two groups are not always distinct!)

Cassie Robinson is Senior Head of UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund

Tagged in: Covid-19


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