Principles of good funding?

There is a huge volume of commentary on what makes a ‘good’ charity and how as a funder you should go about assessing and finding the best ones.

But as the Director of a Trust that funds charities, and having worked in charities myself for nigh on two decades, I have been reflecting a lot on what makes a ‘good’ funder! There doesn’t seem to be much research on this that I have come across, but surely, its something we should be analyzing? After all, if funders are only as good as the sum total of the grants they make, then so too charities are presumably only as good as the sum total of the grants they receive? Trusts and other funders, work in a multitude of different ways, so what’s good practice and what does that look like from the perspective of a charity?

Here are some of my thoughts on just some of the issues that we as a funder need to think through to do our job well (that is, in a way that supports and increases the impact of the voluntary sector orgs we fund)

1. Transparency seems to be at the heart of everything – being clear and open about what you aim to achieve, what information you require and why, how your processes reflect your aims, what funding partners can expect from you and what you in return expect from them. My sense is that many funders instinctively feel that they are already doing this relatively well and that while there may be room for improvement, essentially the ‘system’ works OK. But in a recent insightful evaluation of grantees perceptions of a funders alliance whilst valuing the core nature of the work, the charities spoke of ‘a broken system’. Surprisingly, they also argued that they did not want funders to change lest it divert resources away from their mission. It was a system they were used to living with.

2. Providing grants for a decent period of time – being conscious that the problems we are trying to solve do not get solved in a year, or even three, and so having a willingness to invest in organisations over a decent time period. This has the added value of reducing the amount of costs that an organisation has to spend on fund-raising. We fund minimum of 3 years, with the potential to renew, so I hope we are doing OK on this one!

3. Being prepared to support core costs and/or make unrestricted grants. Many critics talk of mission creep in the voluntary sector, largely as a result of project funding. But as funders we are part of the problem. There is sufficient evidence out there of the benefit and value of unrestricted funding. Yet, whilst Blagrave states on our website that we do provide this type of funding, the vast majority of our applications are for projects – so we obviously have a lot more work to do in this area.

4. Being prepared to invest in monitoring and evaluation costs, and recognizing that good research or m & e, is expensive.

5. Our values as a funder: we believe in partnership and that we are genuinely partners in a common mission – therefore we talk about partners not grantees and we are committed to making our processes as simple, useful and open as possible to free up as much time as possible for the real work! We want an open dialogue on what works and what doesn’t. We already ask our partners for feedback on our application processes and reporting forms and we want to carry out a more detailed annual exercise as well (more on this).

6. Our manners – answer phone calls and e-mails within a certain period – track and monitor this! Make decisions within a certain period. I spoke to a charity only this morning who are seeing a dip in their income due to a reduction in support from their local authority. A certain Foundation who shall remain nameless has been sitting on their proposal since February 2014, but is still asking questions! Surely by now, they have worked out whether they are interested or not? Its good manners to reply – so many orgs tell us that they don’t even get a response from funders! (I am not saying we are brilliant at this, but we certainly try)

7. Clarity on funding levels? Time and time again charities that come to us ask for quite modest grants when assessed against their overall turnover – this seems to be part of a risk management strategy whereby its better to apply to lots of funders for smaller grants c £10k, rather than 1 or 2 for much larger. When asked how much a charity should apply for, I have asked ‘what do you need?’, however this doesn’t seem to help and a slightly awkward conversation follows that results in a modest proposal! I have realised that it might be better to ask ‘if we gave you x what would you spend it on?’ and work from there!

8. Willingness to collaborate proactively with other funders whether that be on strategic areas of mutual interest as well as on practical issues such as sharing information on strong partners that have a funding shortfall, being willing to work flexibly e.g. to each others’ application forms if the occasion requires it and then asking any additional questions if you have them, (I can happily say we have done this, likewise, we have occasionally not bothered with an application form at all, when the charity concerned has already written a strong report on the programme for another funder which they have shared with us)

9. Bringing real expertise and knowledge to funding decisions and understanding what your added-value is as a funder. We believe that one thing we can do is support learning and collaboration in the counties, which is why we are keen to hold an annual meeting for partners to network and share ideas which all partners will shortly receive an invitation to.

These are some of the areas that Blagrave is trying to ensure we address – there is certainly room for improvement and we could debate many of them for some time, but we would love to hear your thoughts.

Finally, a word on feedback. Providing a way for our partners to give feedback about how we work demonstrates a real commitment to improving on all the above. We intend to put in place some systems over the next months to do just this. We also believe that the best way of effecting change for the young people we work with, is by ensuring that they are listened to, so they themselves can let us know whether the services our partners provide are what they actually need; whether they are having an effect and if not, what should we be doing differently? If we don’t ensure that our funding allows for this continuous feedback within our partner organisations, and is flexible in order to enable any changes in services that arise as a result, then we are setting ourselves up at worst to fail, or at best, to achieve far less than we could.

Jo Wells

23rd March 2015