Have you ever found a funder that seems like the perfect fit, only to learn they don’t accept unsolicited applications?
If your work is niche or you’ve approached all the ‘obvious’ trusts and foundations already, then engaging a couple of these invitation-only funders can feel key to broadening your funding base. But there's an age-old question - how can we get on their radar, especially if they don’t even welcome initial enquiries?
Over time I’ve seen various organisations succeed in building thriving relationships with private, strategic funders. It isn’t quick or easy, but there are a few steps you can take.
Firstly, why might a trust or foundation decide to take the invitation-only approach?
Rightly or wrongly, there can be many reasons:
So...what can charities and social enterprises do about this?
1. Look for potential introductions within your network
If a funder relies on their expertise or networks to identify potential grantees, then a recommendation from the right person could make all the difference. For example, your existing funders or project partners will already be engaged and invested in your work – perhaps they know someone working for an invitation-only funder and would be willing to introduce you?
Do your research and don’t be afraid to ask nicely for an introduction, explaining why it’s strategically important to you – you might by how willing people are to help.
2. Engage (and if necessary improve) your Board
We’ve run countless network mapping exercises with Boards. The conversation often starts the same way: “None of our trustees know anyone / are willing to help.” But it’s amazing how quickly things can change if you explain that (1) you’re not looking for introductions for rich and famous people, just prominent people in your sector; and (2) you don’t expect Board members to open their address books willy-nilly and start asking for money, but simply make a couple of strategic introductions.
Trustees will know more people than you (and they) think. I’ve seen organisations build on such tenuous links as “I worked with them 10 years ago”, “I play badminton with them on Tuesday night” and “Our kids go to the same school”.
Try running a network mapping exercise with your trustees, or circulating a list of staff working at a target invitation-only funder to check for connections. And if your trustees really aren’t well-connected, this doesn’t have to always be the case. Explore why – does your organisation focus on recruiting trustees with particular skills and backgrounds in a way that prevents people with better connections from applying? Could you persuade your Board to set a strategic objective to recruit new trustees with funder connections over the next 1-2 years?
3. Engage invitation-only funders in new and more meaningful ways
Tired old introductory letters and emails are far from the only ways of making first contact. Trusts and foundations can and do interact openly on social media, attend funder fairs, speak at events or collaborate on things like research, policy or advocacy work.
Jumping straight into a direct approach about money often goes nowhere. Instead, do your research into where/how funders are actively engaging (e.g. social media platforms or events), find a topic that could be mutually beneficial to you both, then start a conversation accordingly.
4. Focus on thought leadership
I once met an organisation that was told by a funder that “everyone we speak to mentions you, so we thought we should find out what you’re about.” In their own words, they created so much “white noise” around a funder that they eventually couldn’t resist getting in touch.
Organisations that successfully build relationships with invitation-only funders often have one thing in common – they’re thought leaders. They might be known for their high-profile CEO, engaging blog, or policy work.
The term “thought leadership” sounds daunting, but you absolutely don’t need to be a large organisation with a big comms budget. If you work in a niche area, you’ll already be an expert in your field, with people coming to for advice. Sharpening your public expert voice takes time, but is a great way to get on a funder’s radar, and will bring many benefits beyond fundraising.
5. Get the online basics right
While some invitation-only funders simply continue to fund the same organisations every year, many do proactively research new grantees. So if a funder did a niche online search for your specialist area today, would they find you? And if they landed on your website right now, what would they think?
There are a few fundamental things you need to be visible and appealing to potential funders:
These final tips might seem the least relevant to trusts fundraising, but they definitely an indirect role in getting you in front of invitation-only funders over time.
Amid the many challenges we’re facing as a sector, one difficulty that predates the pandemic is recruiting the right fundraiser.
To put it simply, there are an awful lot of organisations out there looking for talented fundraisers, and not enough of them to go around. We've worked with countless small to medium charities who have had to go through multiple recruitment rounds, each time tweaking the job description and bumping up the salary in the hope that it'll make the difference.
While they may get there in the end, they often don’t find the perfect candidate and/or overpay, and there’s certainly an opportunity cost associated with the months lost to a drawn-out recruitment process.
There’s been plenty of reflection around this fundraising recruitment crisis, with fingers pointed at vague job descriptions, unimaginative person specifications and unrealistic expectations - and the broader, existential issue of whether enough people value and understand the charity sector and fundraising profession.
I’m not a recruiter, but I’ve been around enough charities in this position to understand many of the common problems, and know a few things you can do if you’re struggling to find the right fundraiser:
Who's actually auditioning? It's time to rewire your brain...
A common assumption with fundraising recruitment, especially if you're new to it, is that you're the one running the audition. You might expect to welcome a conga line of candidates through your door, and give each one a thorough grilling to decide if they’re right for you.
But in a market of few great fundraisers, it's very much a two-way process. Talented candidates know they have plenty of opportunities to choose from, and won’t necessarily rush to jump into a new role. They’ll want to put you under the microscope too, to understand the requirements and expectations of the job, and evaluate whether you can offer them the right environment to succeed.
Rewiring your brain to this reality will help you recruit more successfully. In your advert, candidate pack and interview process, you need to give a flavour of your organisation’s approach to fundraising. For example, how does your organisation work with and support a fundraiser to make sure they have all the information and tools they need? Is your Board engaged in fundraising, and what does their involvement look like? How have you arrived at any targets you've mentioned?
Allow plenty of scope for the fundraiser to ask you detailed questions. It’s absolutely their right to challenge you too, and it’s a positive sign if they’re clear and even demanding about what they need and expect in order to succeed.
Create your fundraising strategy before you go to market
Organisations looking to make their first significant investment in fundraising naturally target the perfect all-rounder - someone who can both create and execute a knock-out fundraising strategy. But there are numerous problems with this approach.
Firstly, you’re looking for very different skillsets – there are experts in strategic planning and analysis, and experts at doing hands-on fundraising, but far fewer that excel at both. By trying to cover all bases, you risk narrowing the field and compromising in a key area.
Secondly, if you haven’t analysed your organisation’s current position and best income opportunities, how do you know what type of person you’re looking for? Do you need an events expert with a bit of individual giving experience? Or is it more important to find someone who feels comfortable asking for major gifts face-to-face from wealthy individuals and in corporate pitches?
Without a strategy, you often end up writing a vague job description and unrealistic person specification that require a bit of everything. Even worse, there may be a vague fundraising target attached to it that you've never tested, to determine whether it's realistic.
You might think that “this sort of challenge will appeal to the right candidate” but in my experience it’s very off-putting. Successful fundraisers will smell the lack of clarity a mile off. Why would they pack in their current job and take a punt on a new role where, two months in, they might realise they’re not actually the right person for that organisation, or that the job isn't right for them?
If you’re struggling to recruit a fundraiser, or have a limited budget to play with, creating your fundraising strategy first is potentially the most cost-effective approach. Invest a bit of money now in strategic consultancy support or an interim Fundraising Lead, get all your ducks in a row, then recruit the permanent fundraiser. By taking time to clarify your requirements, you’ll not only increase your chances of finding the right person, you might avoid having to throw so much money at a candidate too.
Use your imagination and widen the field
Most person specifications narrow the field far more than you realise, particularly after a pandemic that’s led many of us to reimagine how and where we want to work.
Before recruiting, ask yourself some questions. Do we really need to insist on (or even say that we prefer) candidates having a university degree? Is five years’ experience in a particular fundraising area really necessary? Are there transferrable skills from other sectors that we could look for instead? And while you're there, think twice about whether you really need somebody to be office-based and work five days per week.
#nongraduateswelcome have done phenomenal work to highlight recruitment requirements that are not only unhelpful but, worse, discriminatory and against the values that the organisation supposedly stands for.
Often, charities are seemingly on autopilot, including these requirements simply because everyone else is. Building your person specification from the bottom up – based on what you actually need, rather than what you think ought to be there – is not only the right thing to do, but makes it more likely you’ll find the right fundraiser for you.
With great power comes great responsibility.
(Who actually said that first? A quick journey down an internet rabbit hole suggests it could have originated from Voltaire, Spiderman, The Sword of Damocles or the French National Convention, which isn’t hugely helpful...)
Either way, I think it’s a phrase that applies very well to trusts and foundations. When you give away grants, you of course aim to have positive social impact. However, you can also inadvertently cost good causes money, in the form of convoluted application forms, poorly-planned processes and unclear guidelines. These things waste the time of charity leaders, paid fundraisers and volunteers – and this has a huge opportunity cost at a time when we’re more overstretched than ever.
Funders mustn’t be exempt from criticism for this, just because they give money away. Let’s not forget that philanthropists also get many benefits: tax breaks, public recognition (if they want it) and the ability to influence how we make the world a better place. I’ve previously written about why we need to change the way we view philanthropy, and the things that funders can do better to ensure they a net positive financial impact on the sector.
But I want to forget about the financial cost of bad application processes for a moment, and focus on another aspect – the human cost. Here are a couple of examples from my recent work.
Back in the 4th Century BC, Damocles first shared his views on the responsibilities of funders and philanthropists. Possibly. Credit: Richard Westall - own photograph of painting, Ackland Museum, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, United States of America, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3437614
Example 1: The careless application deadline
Recently we were helping a client apply to the Postcode Local Trust. They open for applications on the first Monday of every month, but close as soon as they’ve received a certain ‘limited number of applications’ (a number they don’t actually publish). Will they stop accepting applications one week, one day or one hour after opening? Who knows, but imagine the frustration if you spend time working on an application that you’re then unable to submit.
This is already questionable practice, but in May 2021 their application date coincided with the Early May Bank Holiday. We phoned them to check they were aware of this – they said that yes they were, and there was a good chance they’d close after reaching that maximum number of applications on that same day.
One of our client’s staff team duly made a note to interrupt her day off – and day out with her family – to switch on her laptop, copy/paste the pre-prepared answers into the application form, and submit it before an unspecified number of other applicants (presumably sacrificing their own Bank Holidays) beat us to it.
This might not be the biggest issue ever, but for me it’s the sheer pointlessness of it all. At a time when so many fundraisers are feeling under pressure and burnt out, why make things worse by coinciding your application deadline with a Bank Holiday? I can’t see how it brings any benefits for the funder – and a tiny change would’ve made a big difference for applicants.
Becoming a Dad last year has given me a different perspective on these things. When you work long hours, your evenings, weekends and days off are a precious commodity. A carelessly-timed application deadline (or indeed, any form of unnecessary bureaucracy) no longer prevents me from doing things like having a lazy morning or going out for a drink – it stops me spending time with my family.
Example 2: The unannounced grilling
Last Autumn, I worked with a client to submit a ~£10,000 application to a local Bristol funder. After six months we still hadn’t heard anything, so assumed it had been unsuccessful. Then, out of the blue, the charity’s Director got a call from their administrator who launched into a series of on-the-spot questions about their accounts.
As a small charity in a tight financial spot, this was a stressful experience – answering quickfire questions about an application they could barely remember, worrying that one slip-up might cost them a much-needed grant.
Happily, the charity did eventually get the grant, but this still left a bitter taste in my mouth. Asking detailed financial questions is understandable, but why not put them in an email, or agree a time to speak in advance, to give applicants some time to dig out the application and the required detail?
Most importantly, this risks skewing the application process. Answering detailed questions on the phone without warning will be harder for applicants whose first language isn’t English, smaller organisations with less financial expertise, and people who work part-time. There’s a risk that funding will be awarded based on which organisations answer on-the-spot questions better, rather than those who have the best projects or most social impact.
Having accessible and reasonable application processes matters – so step forward #FixTheForm
These are just two examples of questionable funder practice, neither of which had much long-term negative impact. But magnify this across the whole sector – thousands of funders and millions of applications – and it’s a different picture.
Badly designed application forms and inconsiderate processes waste time and money, create unnecessary barriers, cause anxiety, and divert people’s time away from much more important things – and frustratingly, it could easily be very different.
One movement trying to change all this is #FixTheForm, an initiative of Grant Advisor. In November 2020, they surveyed 500 grantseekers in nine countries to catalogue their frustrations and pain points. This showed the same issues popping up time and again, with applicants losing hundreds of hours to badly designed forms and processes. According to respondents, the biggest issue was funders not showing their full application form at the start of the process:
Perhaps these issues shouldn’t be surprising. While some funders might not be interested in making improvements to benefit applicants, many simply lack the time and resources. Maybe they don’t even understand the problems they’re causing – understandably, while many applicants would probably love to share feedback, they don’t feel that doing so while asking for money is a very wise idea.
This is why #FixTheForm’s survey – and what they’re doing in response – is so important. Their new 100 Forms in 100 Days campaign aims to persuade 100 funders to join their growing list of ‘ReFormers’ by making a fully transparent application form publicly available on their website. With just over a month to go, they’re almost two-thirds of the way there.
If you’re a charity or social enterprise, you can support #FixTheForm by sharing the 100 Forms campaign with your own funders, talking about it on Twitter, or looking out for future opportunities to share your application experiences with #FixTheForm. And Laura Solomons, who’s leading the #FixTheForm charge in the UK, is a great person to follow on Twitter if you ever want to discuss or draw attention to questionable funder practice.
Neither of my recent experiences above would’ve been solved by a downloadable application form – but based on the #FixTheForm survey results, it’s a really important starting point.
Being a recipient of grant funding doesn’t mean you should simply be grateful and turn a blind eye to processes that make your life harder. Agitating for change is in everyone’s best interests – and if a funder is truly motivated to maximise their social impact, making these changes will be important for them too.
The past 12 months have been quite the journey at Lime Green HQ. No surprises there.
Like many others, we went into Spring 2020 believing that some things shouldn't be done online unless absolutely necessary. There was simply no way that an online workshop could replicate the experience of a having a bunch of energised people in the same room, armed with a whiteboard, colourful post-its and a plate of biscuits.
Fast forward a year and we’ve run approaching 75 online training courses or strategic planning workshops during lockdown, totalling over 200 hours of screen time. We’ve found ways of replicating most of the best aspects of face-to-face workshops, though admittedly we’re yet to crack downloadable biscuits…
Some people will inevitably have issues and preconceptions about online workshops. Digital exclusion is a key issue to keep in mind, and “Zoom fatigue” is now not only a common phrase but an academically-researched, peer-reviewed phenomenon. And too many people have lost too many hours to unproductive and chaotic strategic planning sessions for there ever to be universal enthusiasm.
However, call us new-fashioned, but I don’t think we’ll ever go back to the previous approach of “face-to-face unless absolutely impossible”. We’ve had too much positive feedback about online workshops – for many people they’re simply more accessible, not to mention being cheaper and eliminating travel time.
So, as we all stand on the cusp of returning to our offices and meeting rooms, what have we learned from a year of delivering strategy workshops online? And what should you be thinking about if you want to make an online session as productive and engaging as possible?
Plan shorter sessions with regular breaks
This may sound obvious by this point, but you can’t simply move a session online and hope for the best. We often used to run full-day face-to-face workshops, particularly when people had to travel to be there, but that’s more than anyone can handle online.
Our online workshops almost always last no longer than three hours, with a decent break in the middle, plus shorter breaks throughout to avoid people staring at a screen for more than an hour. This still sounds like a lot of screen time, but we find that provided activities are carefully planned and varied (see below), people can and do want to engage for this long.
Keep things moving and mix up the format
It’s easy for sessions to descend into drawn-out, unstructured conversations – these are hard enough to stay engaged with in a room, let alone on Zoom or Google Meet.
You can avoid this by regularly switching between activities and always focusing people on a specific task - this might be as simple as answering a focused question, filling in a table or coming up with three points on a particular topic. But always keep a good tempo, and avoid lingering for too long.
Mixing up the format also helps to keep people focused – for example switching between breakout room tasks, polls and feedback sessions with a bigger group. We’ve recently seen great results from ‘paired walking tasks’ – where we encourage people to step away from their screen, go for a walk and phone a colleague to discuss a particular question.
Invite people to 'park' ideas
Of course, it can be hard to strike a balance between keeping people focused and avoiding cutting them off. People in our sector are passionate about the way things should be done, and often see these a strategy workshop as a rare opportunity to get their point across.
In our face-to-face workshops, we often set up a ‘parking bay’: a piece of flipchart paper to note down any discussions we have to cut short, or issues that haven't been resolved. We invite everyone to come up and write down anything that matters to them, at any point – and we always capture any ‘parked ideas’ in our notes after. This makes it so much easier to move on and keep to time.
In many ways, this is even easier online. You can ask people to use the chat box on Zoom or Google Meet to note anything they want to come back to later – which they can either do anonymously by sending a private message, or publicly for everyone’s benefit.
Use tools like Miro to make things more playful and creative
A workshop isn’t a workshop without a whiteboard, coloured pens and your own weight in post-its. Capturing information visually is important for keeping people engaged - but typing notes in a document on a shared screen REALLY doesn’t cut it.
We’re huge fans of Miro – a free virtual whiteboard tool that's the next best thing to a big wall and half a stationery shop. Miro allows you to capture the output from a session way more creatively and collaboratively - you can easily move post-its around, group ideas together, or invite everybody to add their own annotations.
Set clear expectations about what will come out of the process
One thing I've found with shorter online workshops is that you inevitably make slower progress and need more patience. An initial session with a group of passionate people will literally fly by - fine if it's the first session on a busy agenda, but it can be more unsettling if that's all you've got time for that day or week.
If you’re planning an online workshop or a series of sessions, always share a clear agenda (that you stick to) and a quick list of planned outcomes in advance. I often start a session by saying something like “This week is all about getting all your concerns and questions out in the open – then next week we’ll start working on answers”, which is a great way to build trust and understanding with people from the outset, and avoid unrealistic expectations.
Remind people about settings that will make them more comfortable
When you think about it, using Zoom isn’t really like meeting people face-to-face at all. It’s unnatural and intense to have everybody staring at you the whole time, all while looking at a mirror image of your own face.
Fortunately, platforms like Zoom give you plenty of options to dial down the intensity, for example hiding your own video, only viewing the person who is actually speaking, or turning your camera off for a break. Resizing the screen so people's heads are closer to the size they'd appear across a table, rather than taking up most of your vision, also really helps. Simply showing people how to use these options – and encouraging them to use them if they need a break - instantly makes it easier and more comfortable to participate online.
Bring in an external facilitator
Shameless plug here, but I love seeing how much more people get out of sessions when they don’t have to worry about taking notes themselves, keeping to time or reminding people when to shut up.
Often, before we run a workshop with an organisation, they’re concerned about how much they’ll get out of it, or whether one person will dominate. But with the right planning and a few ground rules, it's almost always much more enjoyable and productive than they expected.
If you’re struggling to get people to engage positively or keep to time - or even if you just want to be able to dive in fully as a participant yourself - an independent facilitator is usually well worth it, whether you’re meeting online or face-to-face.
It's tricky to generalise about how the pandemic has impacted organisational grant funding levels. While inevitably many charities and social enterprises have struggled, many others with a grassroots community focus have thrived. Some have even unexpectedly smashed their fundraising targets.
However, if there's one thing that’s been consistently difficult in the past 12 months, it's securing funding for capital projects. From talking to various funders, I think there are two (overlapping) reasons for this:
Capital projects are unavoidably high-risk, and many funders are understandably playing it safe
There's no getting away from the fact that renovating a building or creating a new space is complicated and risky. Capital projects often run over budget and behind schedule, and sometimes fail entirely. Even if you've never managed one before, you may know this if you've ever done work on your house – once work begins on the roof or walls, new issues are uncovered, then all bets are off.
This is before you even factor in Covid and Brexit, which will inevitably impact the cost of materials, the availability of labour and the complexity of working on a crowded site.
Funders know all this, and it can worry them. As we recover from the pandemic, they'll continue to be inundated by countless worthy and urgent causes, and won't possibly be able to fund them all. So it’s not surprising that many choose to play it safe. Put yourself in a funder's shoes – would you rather award £10,000 towards a grassroots community food bank that will have a definite and immediate impact, or a complex capital project that might be subject to delays and complications?
Capital projects take a long time, and in a crisis landscape, funders inevitably focus on the short-term
Trusts and foundations often award capital funding in a different way to project grants. If you apply for £25,000 towards a £200,000 project, rather than a funder immediately awarding a grant, they might make a conditional pledge that you can draw down on later, once you’ve raised enough for the project to start.
This approach helps funders to manage risk, but it introduces other problems. If you're in the early stages of a capital campaign, their pledge might remain unused for 6, 12 or even 18 months while you fundraise the rest – and in that time, they’re not having any charitable impact.
Remember that many trusts and foundations are registered charities themselves, so they have their own charitable objectives to work to, and need to report back on their impact. So as well as focusing on lower-risk projects, a funder might well prioritise applicants that can achieve shorter-term impact.
None of this is makes a capital project impossible - but there are a few key steps you can take to help convince sceptical funders:
1. Be crystal clear on your outcomes
With a capital project, it's easy to get wrapped up in the specifics of what you’re fixing or building, and the implications for your organisation. This stuff needs to be in an application somewhere, but it's less important the why.
Who will benefit from your capital project, and in what specific ways? What will they do or experience in the new space you're creating, and how will this change their lives and/or improve the local community?
Try to distill this into four or five clear and distinct bullet points. If you can tie this in with the impact of the pandemic (for example, if this has exacerbated certain needs among the people you support, or resulted in the closure of alternative services), this will help to convince a funder that your project is needed now.
2. Explain how you will deliver your project safely and reliably
As mentioned above, Brexit and Covid bring further complications for capital projects. So the more you can show that you're a safe pair of hands, the more you'll get a risk-averse funder on side.
For example, have you created a risk assessment and detailed contingency plan? Have you consciously chosen suppliers that work in a Covid-secure way? What is your ‘Plan B’ to avoid disruption to services if there are delays? Have you allowed some flexibility in your budget for unexpected costs? Don’t expect a funder to assume these things are in place - you need to convince them that you've been diligent and methodical.
3. Make a virtue of your previous expertise
For similar reasons, your previous track record will be a factor for funders. Has your organisation successfully delivered other capital projects? If not, do any of your leadership team or Board bring relevant experience from elsewhere? Evidence of previous experience in areas such as project management, financial management and architecture / accessible design can be a real plus.
If you can't point to this, a funder might reasonably expect you to show how you're buying in the appropriate professional expertise and guidance, or assembling an experienced project steering group.
4. Ensure you have all the necessary supporting materials in place
Capital funders often insist on specific criteria such as you having an architect’s plan, proof of building ownership or a long lease, and a certain level of match funding secured.
There’s good reason for this. An architect’s plan shows that a project has been professionally designed and can be an insurance policy against nasty surprises that crop up once work has started and threaten to delay or derail a project. A long lease ensures that a project will definitely have long-term charitable impact rather than benefitting a private landlord for unknown purposes. Match funding reduces the chance that a funder's pledge will remain unused for a long time while you scrabble to raise the rest.
Sadly, no amount of engaging project information is a substitute for meeting these requirements, for a risk-averse funder with plenty of worthy projects to choose between. Make sure you know exactly what a funder expects you to have in place before deciding to apply. Even if these items aren’t mentioned as essential requirements, provide them where possible anyway – you can always link to digital files to avoid sending bulky additional material through the post.
5. And finally, consider breaking your capital project into phases
There's no getting around the fact that capital projects are high-risk, even if you can action all of the above, and many funders might continue to be more risk-averse and short-term in their thinking for a while.
You might benefit from dividing a complex capital project into several independent phases, each with their own smaller fundraising target, project timeline and set of outcomes. This could be particularly helpful if you haven’t raised much yet and don’t have previous experience of managing capital projects. It'll enable to get started, demonstrate impact and improve your track record of successful delivery sooner, even if it means temporarily compromising on your ambitions.
DIGITAL EXCLUSION: A GROWING THREAT TO YOUR IMPACT, STRATEGIC OBJECTIVES AND ABILITY TO ACCESS FUNDING?
Since September 2020, we’ve been working with a group of eight voluntary sector leaders to explore how the sector can respond to new challenges and opportunities related to Covid-19. One of the themes has been digital exclusion. With thanks to the group, we’ve shared some key learning and ideas below.
The pros and cons of digital transformation
In 2020, we witnessed digital transformation and innovation like never before. In response to Covid and social distancing, charities and social enterprises of all shapes and sizes were forced to find a way of delivering services online, or stop them altogether.
In mere weeks, organisations overcame barriers that previously seemed insurmountable - with software, skillsets and service user confidence. The results have been truly amazing. Organisations have been able to reach more people, more quickly, and potentially more cheaply than ever before. And many have found digital to be a great platform for their advocacy work - suddenly they’re able to voice their community’s needs and influence policy on a national rather than merely a local level.
Yet is everything quite as rosy as it seems? What about the people who can’t or simply aren’t accessing services online? Are you inadvertently at risk of leaving people behind and exacerbating inequalities? And if so, what does this mean for your long-term impact, strategic objectives and ability to access funding?
We asked voluntary sector leaders to explain the causes and impact of digital exclusion - and here’s what they told us
Covid-19 has significantly increased inequalities in many communities, with a growing digital divide. All too frequently, the people who are most in need of support are also the most digitally excluded:
This is a particular issue in primary care and education settings. While local authorities are attempting to address this by providing essential equipment, distribution is far too slow - even now, we are nowhere near the point where every child has a laptop. Free on-site digital training from businesses (such as banks) is currently not available due to social distancing measures, and even after lockdown could remain inaccessible for those who are most vulnerable.
Overcoming cultural, language and confidence barriers is much more difficult online. ‘Shoulder to shoulder’ activities (such as cookery clubs and Men's Sheds) are amazingly effective at encouraging people to bond, open up and share concerns in informal settings, while doing activities. This simply can’t be replicated in a Zoom call where people are forced to maintain eye contact and feel much more self-conscious.
Digital delivery introduces new safeguarding and privacy concerns that disproportionately impact people on low incomes. What if you need urgent support to protect you from domestic violence or deal with a personal health issue, but live in a small flat and are always within the earshot of family members? Or how can you make the most of online exercise classes if you have no space, facilities or privacy at home?
We are all overwhelmed by more screen time than ever before - adults are working from home and young people are home schooling. This leads to significant fatigue and is another big barrier to engagement, even for services that in theory work well online.
It's challenging to map out who is being excluded from digital services and what their barriers are, when you can’t engage them in the first place. And if digital delivery has enabled you to move into a new geographical area, you might know even less about the local delivery landscape and be working completely in the dark.
Staff who did a brilliant job running face-to-face services might not be natural online facilitators - due to a lack of digital confidence, training or a good home connection. But in current circumstances, they might feel that they should just 'muck in' rather than raising concerns.
For so long we’ve all been talking about digital transformation as a huge potential positive – but there’s an overwhelming sense that while services are changing at pace, too many service users and staff are being left behind.
So what can we all do to address digital exclusion?
1. Grassroots collaboration and activity
Some of our course participants are now exploring the idea of creating ‘digital community hubs’ for vulnerable people who lack the technology, expertise or space to access digital services at home. These hubs would be confidential and Covid-secure spaces for people who need drop-in style digital support and free WiFi connections.
Hubs could be set up in existing community facilities such as libraries, or make use of currently empty buildings such as offices or co-working spaces. To make this happen, local community organisations would need to pool their resources and collaborate on funding bids in order to secure spaces, equipment and staffing. While hubs would cost money, they might enable organisations to make savings by closing some services or facilities that they currently fund in their entirety.
To foster a collaborative approach, every community would ideally need a ‘digital coordinator’. Organisations also need to collaborate better in terms of sharing data and learning about digital exclusion, and pilot solutions.
In the short-term, while services can’t take place face-to-face, it's worth considering whether a digital-only approach is sufficiently fair and accessible. A blended approach involving things like telephone support is likely to better for service users facing safeguarding or privacy issues.
2. Funding and in-kind support
Nobody on our course was currently aware of any significant funding to specifically tackle digital exclusion. Grant funding will be esssential to pay for tangible things like equipment, WiFi connections and data allowances, as well as the additional staff time needed to map out people's needs, adapt services and trial new solutions.
There's a real opportunity for in-kind support too - for example tech equipment and training from companies, and cooperation from mobile phone companies to provide data allowances and devices with pre-installed platforms that minimise data use. Discussing this issue with your suppliers and corporate supporters may be an important first step.
Corporate fundraisers often experience frustration that companies are more willing to give time and ‘things’ than donations. Here’s a tangible opportunity to ask for readily-available equipment that can make an immediate difference - though with many companies severely impacted by the pandemic, the timing could be tricky.
3. Sector-wide lobbying and campaigning
It's clear that we haven’t fully got to grips with the scale of the problem of digital exclusion - there's a lack of awareness among policymakers, a dearth of research to understand it, and a scarcity of funding to overcome it. The organisations that we're working with felt that a coordinated response from the voluntary sector, including support from infrastructure and advocacy organisations, will be needed to:
Research by the funding platform Brevio estimates that UK charities spent a collective £442 million on writing funding applications during the Covid-19 pandemic, with over 50% seeing a declining success rate.
With many organisations struggling to survive - ravaged by the grim ABC of Austerity, Brexit and Covid-19 - surely there’s a better way of doing things? I’m not sure it’s the done thing to write New Year's resolutions for other people, but I've been working on a 2021 wish list for trusts and foundations...
Too many funders are making fundraisers' jobs harder than necessary. Not every funder is guilty - and I've tried to highlight some positive examples below too - but the vast majority could make big improvements by fixing at least some of the following:
Update your reserves policy to reflect a year like no other
If you browse what funders say about reserves levels, you’d be forgiven for thinking that keeping anything below three months or above six months of running costs is a heinous crime. It feels like organisations can’t win - step outside a narrow, arbitrarily-defined window, and you’re either financially reckless or decadent beyond belief.
Yet 2020 provided a compelling justification for more generous reserves - suddenly, six months’ running costs doesn't seem so indulgent in a year-long pandemic. Equally importantly, many organisations will now have severely depleted their reserves to keep themselves afloat. So funders: it’d be great to see you reflecting on the consequences of the pandemic and adjusting your reserves requirements, at least temporarily.
Adopt a two-stage application process
There’s nothing more frustrating than spending days on an application, then being told by the funder that “we don’t feel you meet our objectives” or “we're no longer funding in that area”. Even when you've researched a funder thoroughly, you often have no idea how they'll perceive your work until you’ve told them about it.
That’s why it's great that funders like the National Lottery Community Fund, John Ellerman Foundation and Masonic Charitable Foundation have a two-stage process for larger grants. A simple form to gather some initial information about the organisation and project, then a longer form if they still feel you’re a potential fit.
Unless somebody can give me a good reason otherwise, this is an obvious win-win. Applicants spend less time on lengthy forms that were always destined to be unsuccessful. Funders save resources too, by drastically reducing the time spent assessing so many long and unsuitable applications - this would surely more than make up for the extra administration of a two-stage process.
Commit to giving feedback (at least at stage two)
Getting meaningful feedback on unsuccessful applications is a game-changer for charities. If you understand why an application was rejected, you can judge whether it’s worth ever reapplying to that same funder - and use that feedback to strengthen other applications too.
I get that providing feedback can be problematic for funders, particularly when they’re hugely oversubscribed. Yet this is another justification for the two-stage application process: by initially whittling down applicants to the best 10-20%, it's easier to then commit to providing feedback to those who clear the first hurdle.
This seems a fair bargain to me – we might not be able to give everyone feedback but we'll at least make it a fairly quick and painless process. And if we do decide we need considerably more information from you, we’ll make sure you get something useful from it.
Adopt a standardised format for common questions