Agent Provocateur: Create a better fabric of support for charities seeking to adapt
Funders must remain agile and continue to take risks post-pandemic, says Charlotte Newman.
In March 2020, NCVO launched a brilliant but sadly fruitless campaign to encourage the government to provide urgent financial help for charities. Foreseeing the widescale loss of sector income and increasing demand on services that health and social care-related charities in particular would face, many of the UK’s mainstream grant and social investment funders jumped into action to knit together the best safety net they could and get money out to vital organisations quickly.
But, like every organisation with a budget to manage, these decisions came with hard choices. Most chose to close applications from new organisations to keep existing grantees afloat. Many had to step away from funding strategic priorities to make way for Covid emergency relief pots.
At the time, many organisations working on issues such as access to justice, education and employment initiatives fell outside of this scope. My peers and I had no idea when we would be eligible to apply for even one new grant, let alone enough to meet the usual 20% application-success ratio.
Just over a year on and the walls are closing in. While we are hopeful that grant funders will start to open up opportunities for applicants again soon, even the most resilient organisations are facing an incredibly tight runway, with no prospect of waiting out the six-to-nine month decision-making cycles predominant previously.
For those of us that have managed to hang in there, we can see so much potential to unlock a new way of doing things. Just as we have honed our adaptive capacity during the pandemic, funders have also learnt more agile ways of working that allow for quicker decisions, iterative rather than fixed-project outcomes (where results are achieved through repeated learning and testing cycles), and more open and supportive relationships.
We have benefited tremendously from the flexible funding model afforded to us by the National Lottery Digital Fund, which is leading the way, alongside Comic Relief and Paul Hamlyn’s Tech for Good programme. By allowing us to put live-user learnings at the centre of our service delivery, they are showing that it is possible to agree a very clear shared vision of what goals a project should deliver, without requiring a fixed roadmap on how to get there.
However, we risk losing this progress if the approach continues to be confined to digital initiatives. What’s currently viewed as an experiment with separate pots of money should be broadened to standard practice among grant funders.
It may feel risky for those who want a clear sense of what’s going to be achieved upfront, but if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is how essential it is to allow organisations to respond more easily to a rapidly changing environment.
While no one has calculated the public sector savings that charities have enabled during the pandemic, or their overall contribution to GDP, it is likely to be in the billions of pounds – multiplying the initial safety-net investment many times over.
But we aspire to be more than society’s safety net. Charities want to lead the conversation on how we can use the disruption created by the pandemic to unstick previously entrenched social problems. We want to proactively design a better future that provides for our basic human and environmental needs.
To do that we need to make a quilt out of the safety net. Bring more funding back to the wide array of organisations that hold up the social foundations of our society and create a better fabric of support for the thousands of charities seeking to adapt to the new age.
For charity leaders, it is the unspoken pressure points that we need the support of funders to get past such as finding new ways to make our services accessible, up-skilling our staff and staying competitive in a market that’s being overtaken by private sector providers. Let’s change the story.
Let’s restore faith in our craft, develop our digital practice and set the benchmark for shaping a new social agenda that delivers for the people and communities that need our help.