Grant reporting is broken: lessons from Blagrave experience
Tessa Hibbert, Regional Partnerships Manager, sets out the Blagrave Trust learning about a new way of grant reporting.
At the Blagrave Trust, we are passionate about ensuring that we do everything we can to increase the effectiveness of the organisations that we are funding. Our commitments to the charities we fund are on our website so partners know what they can expect from us.
A year ago, in response to listening to charities, we moved to multi-year core funding rather than restricted funding. Our assessment process is now undertaken primarily through face-to-face meetings, if possible including young people, and by carefully reviewing the charity’s strategic documents. We no longer have an application form and rarely offer project specific grants.
How do we work?
- We don’t have a bespoke monitoring report. We invite partners annually to share existing reports on things like organisational strategy, development and impact. This could include an end of grant report for another funder or a Board update.
- We don’t prescribe outcome metrics but instead ask partners what they are learning about how young people experience their organisation and the services they offer.
- We give feedback on the information we receive, making sure partners know what we found helpful, that we read the information they send us and we invite a two-way conversation.
- We seek opportunities to give learning a wider platform. For example, in response to many of our partners reporting their concern for the most disadvantaged 16-25 age group, we commissioned a review in 2018 pulling together this and the wider literature on the key issues facing young people at the transition to adulthood.
Some of the benefits:
- Confidence: The depth and knowledge of our partners gained through pre-grant visits and assessment has given us the confidence to move away from a more transactional process focused on accountability and control. Our experience is that this promotes trust and partners are now more open to telling us about the challenges they face, which in turn has helped us understand more about how we can use our funding to best effect.
- Capacity: We now have more capacity – even within a small team – for learning and adaptation. We believe if we want organisations to learn then we also have to learn and adapt ourselves, and be open to trying new approaches. This year we launched the Listening Fund with three other funders, committing to a shared approach to reporting as well as looking at how funder practice itself incorporates user voice.
- Community: Having a more rounded understanding of each of our partners means we can play a meaningful role in convening and connecting them, which we do in a variety of ways.
- Learning: Freeing ourselves from the rigidity of forms means that we are able to engage in a different kind of conversation, where we listen to what our partners want to tell us about the context they work in, the successes, challenges and opportunities – we feel this enriches our own learning.
- Adaptation: Because we do not have rigid frameworks for reporting, partners are able to course correct – we believe this gives them greater flexibility to respond to what young people themselves are prioritising as important in their services.
What our partners say about this approach?
We ask our partners for feedback on our performance as a funder at key stages of the relationship – initial funding including rejection, mid cycle, and at grant conclusion – to check we are on course with our commitments. We publish the results of our feedback. It shines a light on our way of working and signals to partners that we take their feedback seriously. Partners highlighted they wanted us to involve them in determining how they report to us and that we should respond and discuss their reports with them – both of which we now do.
Some of the challenges:
- Culture change: Some of our partners told us they struggled with the greater flexibility at application and reporting stage, anxious to make sure they ‘got it right’, in particular for more junior staff not accustomed to this approach.
- Project vs core funding: Our approach works well for core funding, but we recognize that there is more complexity when you are funding a project and may want to drill down.
- Reading between the lines: Inviting partners to send us reports written for other purposes means we receive a wide range including published impact reports or case studies. This means we may have to investigate further to reach the real learning, but on the other hand, our knowledge of the whole organisation is strong.
- Synthesizing the learning: Without standardised headings it can be difficult to pick out common themes from the reports.
- Relinquishing control: Our approach assumes ceding a certain amount of control over information flow – as a smaller funder, that is an easy risk to take given the benefits we see, however, the larger you are then the more complex this can become.
What else could be done?
We know that different funders have a whole range of reasons that justify the approaches they take. But why don’t we put organisations in the driving seat of reporting? A charity could produce one report each year that covered the totality of their work, including projects, for all their funders. Funders could be offered the opportunity for a joint conversation to meet with the charity together and discuss the report and the learning. Or funders of a given charity could agree one timeframe for reporting so charities weren’t forced to re-hash the same information, in a multitude of ways, multiple times over a year.
Our approach is always evolving and we are not unique amongst funders in this. We strongly support the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation’s call for a critical look at the current funding ecosystem. Listening for Change showed it clearly needs a ‘fix’. With a more open and trusting relationship between funders and funded we can build a stronger and more resilient civil society for all.
 Comic Relief, Big Lottery Fund, Esmée Fairbairn Foundation