This is the third post in a series of Observations from a funder on the frontline of grantmaking during Covid-19.
Last week The National Lottery Community Fund hosted the first of a series of three events with the RSA about what happens beyond the immediate crisis — the recovery, the rebuild and the renewal. It wasn’t directly about funding practices, but I realised some of the discussion was really useful when thinking about the work Trusts and Foundations are doing at this time. Here are some of the things I took away from it.
Reward different things
Often we focus on what organisations say they will deliver as a way of funding them, but this is a time when a lot of organisations are either unable to deliver or are needing to entirely change how they deliver. What would happen if we rewarded adaptation instead of solely delivery?
‘Organisations, communities and individuals that are inherently adaptable will inherently be better at responding to the crisis and thinking about the future.’
This is something I have seen in the Digital Fund cohort, who are just better set up to deal with the current uncertainty and the continual adaption that is needed. It’s also what I see in groups and communities who have been underinvested in for years, who are used to inventing ways to survive and adapt. I’d recommend that any grants given for renewal ensure that the organisation has the ingenuity to adapt — it’s a mindset as much as anything else.
I’d also be looking for the questions that organisations are asking themselves at this time. Someone in the workshop described it as having prompted an “existential crisis” where fundamental questions needed to be asked. What is my group/organisation for? Is it able to still effectively contribute to society? Is it still relevant? Do we need to reflect on and reposition our values: what is important to us? To what extent have our core aims and values changed? As funders I think we should encourage and support this kind of reflection and not jump to only sticking plasters — which may be necessary in the urgent short term but not for anything beyond.
This is a time for funders to invest in what they want to see more of beyond the immediate crisis. What would happen if we gave more value to certain behaviours — kindness, adaptability, humility about fallibility.
We are seeing so many organisations working in new collaborations, co-ordinating their efforts, building entirely different kinds of relationships — can we reward this? The idea of only funding collectives rather than individual organisations has never felt more plausible.
*I’m not keen on the idea of ‘reward’ as it sounds like patting someone on their head but I couldn’t think of a better word.
What else to consider in decision making
Trusts and Foundations have a huge amount of responsibility right now in terms of what survives the next weeks, months and years — though of course it’s inappropriate to think that grant money should or could ‘save’ civil society. It is important though to be clear about which selection mechanisms we use for ‘what lives’ and how to retain what worked before and bring it back. Who is doing that selection ? What is it being informed by?
‘Our data (in civil society) is not good enough, and we are having to make big decisions with very little insight into what is a hugely complex area’ said one participant at the event and I couldn’t agree more. They spoke about seeing grants being awarded for needs which are easily identifiable — e.g. food banks, but stressed that it is much harder to know, and therefore make decisions on longer term needs and responses.
Linked to the above, do we as Trusts and Foundations wait for what emerges, or do we need to be more directive — to take positions on things, especially in a time when there are urgent needs. Do we rely on emergence or design?
Are we being bold enough?
A really important point made by Jennie Winhall at the event is that whilst charities and community groups are doing essential work, generally Trusts and Foundations are still funding the patterns that reinforce support organisations as being the ones who do the support. These organisations are mostly overwhelmed and it means that we are not supporting a range of sectors to engage with and support people differently — bringing new kinds of resources and assets into the system.
Jennie also made a point about the pattern of resources. Resources are being locked up in higher income households where they still have income but can’t spend the 25% they usually spend on retail and leisure; retail and leisure employs the lowest income households — this highlights the problems of flows of resources locally. Jennie said she saw a high interest in supporting local economies right now but what is missing is the right forums to reconfigure these flows. I highlight this to say that Trusts and Foundations need to fund new ideas and innovations at this time too — and to listen for them in the noise of the immediate need.
This really just reiterates the above points but needs extra emphasis — as funders, let’s make sure we aren’t just throwing more money at the same old systems and hoping something will change.
Cassie Robinson is Senior Head of UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund