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:
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