My motivation for working for a funder is to bring benefit to the fantastic organisations and people supporting my local community. That’s why it is so depressing to read quotes like this:
“Some (funders) …seem to enjoy being elusive and not engaging with organisations at all. On some occasions, it has also felt like the funder or key contact has almost played games with us.”
Listening for Change (Blagrave Trust and Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, 2016) was one of just many recent surveys of charities that revealed the impact that we as funders are having on the very organisations I was hoping to help.
The difficulty for me is that, in my role as Regional Partnerships Manager for the Blagrave Trust, I was also being asked to account for how the Trust’s funding is spent and the difference it is making.
Common wisdom in the funding community is that tightly defined project funding streams, with strict reporting requirements, are the best way of achieving impact.
But I found that creating ever more hoops to jump through just wasn’t working to create impact. Instead it was slowing down the very organisations I wanted to help. According to Listening for Change, for 31% of respondents, over 30% of total organisational resource was spent simply managing funding contracts. I found this intensely demotivating and the criticism frustrating.
What we did
At the Blagrave Trust, we are passionate about ensuring that we do everything we can to support, and therefore increase, the effectiveness of the organisations that we are funding. We were determined to respond to what our partners were saying, and in early 2017, we moved to multi-year funding on an unrestricted, or ‘core’, basis as the norm.
The US based Whitman Institute calls this “trust-based philanthropy”—a grantmaking framework based on unrestricted funding for entities working to build power for people who don’t have it.
Our assessment process is now undertaken through face-to-face meetings and by carefully reviewing the charity’s strategic documents. We no longer have an application form and we rarely offer project specific grants.
Providing unrestricted rather than project funding is important because we believe that local knowledge, context and creativity cannot be neatly conveyed in a project plan. Solving complex problems requires an organisation to be bold, try new approaches, listen to those who they seek to help and adapt their practice in response. This cannot be summed up by a neatly defined gantt chart or project budget and we do not ask for these in application.
Instead we ‘get under the skin’ of an organisation’s core values and look for a clear match with our own mission.
One question we always ask at an early stage is ‘What have you learnt about how young people experience your organisation and how you are responding to their needs?’ We want to partner with organisations that put young people at the centre of their work, and asking early on to hear about young people’s feedback signals this.
When we find the right partner we invest in them and they use our funding towards their identified priorities.
At assessment we try to be as open as possible in our decisions-making. We give feedback on all applications – both rejected and successful, so that that partners have a clearer understanding of our motivation.
- Freeing ourselves from the rigidity of forms means that we are able to engage in a different kind of conversation – from a place of “implicit trust” (Pia Infante, Director, The Whitman Institute). We listen to what our partners want to tell us about the context they work in, the successes, challenges and opportunities, rather than totting up specific beneficiary numbers or balancing the budget to meet our requirements. This has really helped to learn about local context and the role our funding can play.
- Relationships become two way: if I need help from partners, for example consulting on a new idea, following up a lead or asking for a speaker at a conference, I feel more able to pick up the phone and ask a favour.
We see ourselves as working together with our partners and the young people they’re supporting.
- Our approach assumes ceding a certain amount of control over information flow – as a smaller, independent 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.
- How to draw out clear messages from all the information our partners send us? Inviting partners to send us reports written for other purposes means we receive a wide range including published impact reports or case studies. I have to investigate further to reach the real learning, but on the other hand, my knowledge of the whole organisation is strong.
- Some partners have struggled to understand our approach and either create their own forms to fit what they’re used to, or feel anxious about our requirements. This has, however, meant an opening up of the conversation from early on in the assessment process.
Difference it makes
After more than a year of our new approach I feel more convinced than ever it has been the right decision, not just for Blagrave but for me personally.
We regularly ask for feedback from partners and potential applicants and the kind of comments we receive are a real endorsement and an encouragement:
“We have loved the proactive approach and interest in what we are doing by Blagrave – and really appreciate the fact that we don’t feel we are bidding or pitching against other sector colleagues to complete for funds.”
On a personal level I also feel far more connected to the difference we are making. Visits to partners and putting a high priority on listening to what they learn from young people means I share the benefits for the young people that our partners are helping. Feeling remote – and too tangled up in bureaucracy – is depressing and affects many of us in the sector. With our approach, I can actually enjoy my role.
Tessa Hibbert, Regional Partnerships Manager