When you build it and they don’t come – an approach for proactive research within responsive philanthropy


Gabriela Cervera


Since late 2019, we at I.G. Advisors have been working closely with Garfield Weston Foundation to thoroughly understand the needs of the UK Environmental Sector. Last week, the Foundation published the Prioritising Our Planet Report to share these learnings alongside practical advice for both frontline organisations and funders. But how did we get to this point?

It started when the Foundation – one of the largest responsive funders in the world – found they had not ‘been receiving the level and quality of applications from environment charities that [they] hope for’, and were therefore unable to fully support the sector. This common challenge of responsive philanthropy is complex – why weren’t organisation’s applying for funding? Are there enough environmental organisations out there? Are they conducting impactful work? Do they need money? Do they know where to seek funding? Do they know Garfield Weston Foundation? Are they lacking resource to apply? And the biggest one: How can we, as funders, strategically enable their work?

We knew the right approach to uncovering the answers to these questions was to develop a better understanding of the sector as a whole. But this is easier said than done! Looking at a complex system like civil society, even when you only focus on a sub-set such as environmental charities, requires careful and nuanced exploration, as well as time and effort. We often work with funders facing similar questions in their areas of work, so we wanted to share some of the steps we followed with Garfield Weston Foundation to uncover the secrets behind the sector, and arrive at the findings in the report.

Step 1: Paint a picture of the sector
The first step was to conduct thorough research on the sector as a whole. Key questions we sought to answer were: How many organisations are there? What is their size? What’s the range of sizes? How do they classify their work? How are they funded? How has this changed over time? Where are they based? From available data, what do we think their biggest needs are? Which issues are most, and least, heavily funded? We also articulated our assumptions about the sector, and sought to test them.

Tip: Make sure you have a robust list of data resources to draw from and start from the big picture to then zoom into the sector and/or specific region. We recommend accessing the Charity Commission and NCVO’s Charity Almanac (if you’re in the UK), data on funding and funder trends, reports from frontline organisations and funders, specialist journals, etc.

Step 2: Hear directly from sector leaders
After having a better understanding of what the sector looked like, we directly reached out to key player organisations to learn more about their needs & challenges and test our previous learnings. We designed a short survey, where answers could be completely anonymous, in order to avoid funder-influenced responses. We kept the questions light-touch, quantitative, and easy to engage with.

Tip: Make sure you’re not taking too much time or resource away from organisations; if it’s appropriate, compensate or reward them for their input.

Step 3: Share the knowledge you’ve built
After processing and analysing all the information collected, we worked on drafting a report to share the key insights alongside practical advice to build sector knowledge and ignite action from others. The philanthropy sector is a treasure trove of data, so we always work with Foundations to be as generous with this as they are with money!

Tip: If you don’t have the necessary budget for a report, send emails, host a webinar, share on social media, use your network.

Step 4: Take action to fund strategically
The key final step is to take action and, when possible, encourage others to do so. Partner with organisations to help the sector overcome challenges. In the case of Garfield Weston Foundation and the UK Environmental Sector, our work uncovered the need for better storytelling and communications, which led to a partnership with The Media Trust to build capacity in this area.

Tip: If you don’t know where to start, adding flexibility and encouraging full cost-recovery in your grantee’s budgets is always best practice. This allows your grantees to have a well-functioning effective organisation and invest where most needed, which in turn will provide you with learning you can incorporate into your giving.

And that’s it! This is certainly a journey that requires investment, and we believe funders have a responsibility to invest in this knowledge, even in the world of responsive philanthropy. If you haven’t started this journey yet, these steps can be replicated for almost any sector, and can support donors of every size to become more strategic, enabling a thriving sector to deliver the impact you seek.

Gabriela Cervera, Advisor at I.G. Advisors

Tagged in: Funding practice

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