Alex Blake examines what the coming year holds for grant-making trusts
Many of the large grant-making trusts that fund charities in Scotland (both those based in Scotland and those that fund UK-wide) have responded to the Covid-19 crisis by being more flexible and responsive, offering core funding (some for the first time) and application processes have become simpler and quicker. On the downside, funding has been short term, most grants have been small and funds have closed without notice due to the scale of applications received.
There is significant uncertainty over what comes next, which is stressful but it is hardly new for fundraisers and charity leaders. But the pandemic has given funders a taste of this uncertainty as they realise that there is no guarantee what can be achieved with their funding when it is unrealistic to expect applicants to give detailed plans of activity and spending for the next year. As Ben Cairns at IVAR says so eloquently "Covid has exposed the fallacy of certainty".
IVAR’s latest briefing paper from its Evaluation Roundtable Community of Practice sessions with 20 funders found that there is a real appetite and enthusiasm for maintaining recent adaptations, in particular: simpler, more flexible processes; more delegation; greater trust and openness.
It may be foolhardy to make predictions at the moment, but here are mine anyway:
- More funders will narrow their strategic focus
As government restrictions on mixing continue and the economy suffers, we can expect the impact on income from trading, events and community fundraising to continue. At the same time, we will see a loss of EU funding due to Brexit. Competition for grant funding was already intense before the pandemic and has been even higher since, as we have seen in the inundated emergency grant funding programmes.
Funders will inevitably look for ways to manage this increase in demand, which is why I think we will see more funders narrowing their strategic focus to support specific issues or demographics.
What can you do in response?
Ensure that you fully understand the funders’ priorities and eligibility criteria. If you don’t fit, don’t apply. When funders narrow their focus, you should do the same and be targeted with your applications. You are better off spending more time on the applications where you are a good fit for the funder, than trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.
- Impactful learning will trump impact measurement
For years, there has been a lot of debate around how charities demonstrate the difference they make and what funders ask of them in this regard. In recent years, there has been an increasing shift from larger funders from rigid impact frameworks toward a more relational, trust-based approach to assessing charities’ impact and making decisions on their funding. This has included the National Lottery Community Fund (see changes to Young Start and Improving Lives in the last couple of years) and large trusts such as the Robertson Trust and Corra Foundation.
Funders will always want to try to understand the impact of their funding just as charities want to understand how they can best support their beneficiaries. There will always be questions around the difference you want to make (which may use the language of outcomes and impact) and your approach to evaluation, but I predict that funders will increasingly accept that learning is more important than measuring.
As Hazel Robertson at the Robertson Trust says, “What will tell us more about an organisation – a list of outcomes that they may or may not have achieved, or an informal chat where they have free-reign to tell us everything about their work?”
What can you do in response?
Ways to gain trust can include your track record, a clear set of accounts, good governance and evidence of learning and improving. Assuming you have the basics of finance, governance and track record in place, then review your charity’s approach to evaluation. What data (qualitative as well as quantitative) are you collecting and what does it tell you? How do you use this data to learn? What are you learning and how is that improving the way that you work in meeting your charitable objectives?
Answering questions like this will give funders more confidence in your organisation than being able to say x percentage of beneficiaries agreed that your service made a positive difference.
- Funders will expect more and better engagement with beneficiaries
Another hotly debated topic in the grant-making sector recently has been equity and inclusion. This has focussed both on how funders make decisions and who they fund, as well as how charities involve the communities they serve in their decision making.
A recent report on power and trust from the Grant Givers Movement finds that ‘Communities hold power in the knowledge, networks, people and assets they hold. Yet, it is widely recognised that philanthropy is not representative of the communities it seeks to serve.’
What can you do in response?
Following the impact of the pandemic on people’s lives, it is even more important to be specific about what you have learned from engaging with your beneficiaries and how you are meeting their needs in new ways.
It is the individual stories of the people you support and their feedback that gives the richest and most up to date information on what challenges they currently face. Gathering this information and analysing it in your organisation, enables you to continuously improve services to best meet the needs of your beneficiaries. It also creates a culture of learning and insight based on the experiences of your community.
To be effective in a complex world of uncertainty, you need a culture of learning and continuous improvement, with meaningful beneficiary involvement throughout the process. Having the voice of your community in your case for support is vital to successful funding applications.
How prepared are you for trust fundraising in 2021? Our trust fundraising scorecard assesses the strength of your case for support and the four other aspects of the trust fundraising framework. The assessment is free of charge, completely confidential and takes just 10 minutes to complete. You’ll get your results scorecard straightaway, which includes recommendations on what you can do to increase your annual grant income.
Alex Blake is KEDA Consulting's founding director and lead consultant