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.
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:
Like this blog? If so then please...