What can funders learn from Team GB’s Olympic gold rush?


Tris Lumley and NPC


As the dust settles after another Olympics, many of us are left wondering how to fill our time now we can’t obsessively follow taekwondo and canoe slalom. Those of us in the world of charity funding might find ourselves pondering what we can learn from the (apparently pretty successful) funding of elite sport.

UK Sport, funder of Team GB’s elite athletes, has declared victory on a global scale. Great Britain is now a sporting superpower. Finishing higher in the medal table than China, the results are plain for all to see, carved out in gold, silver and bronze. There must be a lot of high fives going on in UK Sport’s HQ right now.

There’s also been a fair bit of discussion of the ‘no compromise’ approach UK Sport took to achieve this new superpower status. The sports that excelled at London 2012 had their funding increased; those that hadn’t delivered saw their cheques downsized. This is the tough love that UK Sport decided would bring them medal success—and there are few who would argue with their logic right now.

So what does any of this mean for funders and investors in the social sector?

UK Sport’s funding strategy has a number of key facets, of which the hard-headed response to success or failure is just the most obvious. Behind that sits the fact that they are also funding over the long term, and backing athletes (and their supporting organisations and teams) for long periods of time.

In grant funding, however, such long-term strategies have never been common. More typical is funding over a three year grant period, which is not then followed by further ongoing funding, regardless of the results. While the numbers of more committed long term funders like Inspiring Scotland might be growing over recent years, this is still very far from the norm. Many funders still like to provide one year grants, to allow them to rotate their support across a greater number of organisations. That may make sense for some trusts and foundations, but quite simply it means that they can’t back success.

If funders don’t build on grantees’ success (or failure), and don’t provide ongoing funding to scale that success or learn from failure, then it begs the question of what exactly they’re trying to achieve if they require or encourage their grantees to evaluate their work. Not using the results of those evaluations to make decisions about continuing to fund an organisation is, at the very least, a missed opportunity.

There are many other seams to mine on the relevance of UK Sport’s approach to charitable grant-making. Being such a targeted funder, there are lots of other things they can’t do. They can’t focus on encouraging participation if their laser-like focus is on bringing home the gold. They can’t focus on sport for development if their strategy is about elite athletes. But it can be argued that if there are other funders to do this, like Sport England with its focus on grassroots sport, then that’s fine.

It would be welcome to see more targeted funding, with investments made over the long-term in organisations, and building on their results to define their future funding decisions and strategies. As long as there are still other funders to ensure there’s diversity in the type of funding available, I believe this could help the GB charity sector to emulate its sporting counterpart. It isn’t beyond us to become a social impact superpower.

Tris Lumley is director of development at NPC. Email Tris.Lumley@thinkNPC.org

Twitter @trisml

Comments (1)

Jayne Woodley

Couldn't agree more, and indeed this is just the sort of exploration and collaboration that the Oxfordshire Community Foundation are hoping to see at an inuagural Funders Forum we are hosting on the 13th October for grant funders who share an in Oxfordshire. I love the analogy with the Olympics and the ambition of GB charity sector becoming a social impact superpower.

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