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


Cassie Robinson


What is this new context bringing up for you as a funder? Here I share some of my reflections and observations 6 weeks into the crisis in the UK.

That word interdependence is appearing in many places at the moment, which is a good thing, but I’m not sure I’ve seen anyone articulate what it means if you translate it into funding practice. The crisis has made visible the way we are interconnected and in turn interdependent, at an individual level but also in terms of our social fabric. We need to be able to depend on so much more than just ourselves and those that we know.

If Trusts and Foundations want to play a role in emphasising and strengthening what is interdependent then that means not simply rushing to fund lots of individual organisations however desperate they may be. Now is a time when funders could focus resources on building collective resilience rather than on the protection of individual organisations. Or at the very least resourcing organisations, as they rethink what they do and who they are, to work out their different roles in relation to one another. I developed this blueprint for foundations to use, but it can also be used with an ecosystem of civil society organisations.

Now is the time to demonstrate how multiple organisations and groups, of all shapes, sizes and identities, can work interdependently, systematically, creatively and compassionately through shared challenges.

Plurality and sequencing
This period of time doesn’t have a singular beginning and a singular end like a novel. As Trusts and Foundations you need to be thinking about plural approaches and you need to be doing all of them simultaneously — like the lanes in a running track. One for sprinting, one for long distance, one that is for a consistent, steady pace. One that requires a zigzagging — the holding of space between what is and what is next — a process that helps people sense, see and name what lies ahead, and one that is perhaps for wandering, where you are not even sure of a destination but able to notice entirely new things. We should remember we’ll also need a track that is for rest — and rest that will need resourcing.

There is also a necessary sequencing of where to place attention and effort — the re-imagination of what is possible cannot happen without also facing and accepting loss. Whilst current urgencies need urgent attention ‘In addition, we need to cultivate wiser, more farsighted and systemically-literate habits of mind, as individuals, as organisations, and yes, as whole societies.’[1]

Who’s rebuilding and what is being centred?
‘If you always do what you always did, you will always get what you always got.’
Albert Einstein

As I said in my Keynote talk recently, ‘This is a window of time where there’s opportunity and need to understand intersectionality more, to link up the different struggles.’ That was before Covid-19, but now in the recovery and rebuild of civil society, who we fund — and by extension, who gets centred, is vitally important.

Whilst many are living the crisis, or responding to it in the immediate present, the noise around what comes next is growing. So many people and organisations are setting themselves up to help imagine the future and determine the new normal. We all have a role to play in shaping the future, and as funders we should be particularly aware of who is, and more importantly who isn’t, centre stage here.

As we start to look for the weak and the strong signals of transformation, we need to look very carefully. Who are the people that have the time at the moment to do the thinking and imagining? In the last few weeks I’ve seen a clear line between those able to do ‘thought leadership’ and share that with funders, and those on the frontlines. We need some of the work that informs the recovery and rebuild to come from a more distant view, where a step back has been taken, and wider lens applied, but we should be checking in on who’s predominantly doing that work, and what that will mean for our futures.

Some of this also comes down to the specifics of who Trusts, Foundations and philanthropists look to for strategic advice about where to put their money — and I’ve heard of many stories in the last few weeks that would suggest to me we need better (more diverse and closer to the ground) sources of intelligence to inform those kinds of decisions.

Personally, I am listening out for who I am not hearing from at all.

Building sensemaking capability
In relation to the above, I’m interested in how we, as funders, invest in building a wider group of people and communities to be sensemakers of their own experiences. After all, if we want to fund through an equity lens, the knowledge we are privileging, and who that knowledge gets attributed too, really matters.

That’s why this initiative from the Open University and the Young Foundation is so brilliant, and a similar one from the Mass Observation initiative. Wisdom from the Lived Experience Movement will also be vital to listen to.

What existing ideas can we build on?
‘Only a crisis — actual or perceived — produces real change. When that crisis occurs, the actions that are taken depend on the ideas that are lying around. That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes the politically inevitable.’ ― Milton Friedman

Funders need to be ready to put forward the seeds of initiatives that they were already investing in, as well as go back through what they weren’t comfortable taking a risk on before. If we are looking for the building blocks of a new normal, what didn’t seem plausible before is likely to be just what we need going forward. The net that funders should cast now needs not only to be about what is centred in that net, but also rethinking what the entire shape and function of the net is.

Cast it wider, deeper and into entirely new places where people know of things that have just been waiting to happen.

Making sense of what’s on offer
As new alternatives emerge, or ideas and projects that have been bubbling away for some time finally find they are given oxygen, funders will need to make sense of what to fund in an ecology. What are all the parts that need assembling to create a Community Interest Infrastructure?

I’ve heard some funders this week talk about keeping things simple — and simplicity is important in terms of getting money out the door and not adding extra labour for grantees, but this crisis is complex, it has many moving parts, and it’s likely to continue with further consequences. We can’t flatten and simplify and expect to be properly equipped to deal with the crisis.

As Zeynep Tufekci writes — ‘We will still need all the systemic thinking we can muster to anticipate the second- and third-order effects that will follow this crisis. And if we hope to blunt the impact of others like it, let’s not forget, again, that all of our lives are, together, embedded in highly complex systems.’

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

Tagged in: Covid-19 Funding practice


  1. ^

Comments (0)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *