In late April, NPC convened a group of ~70 charities and funders to discuss changes in grant-making that we have seen since the start of the pandemic: what has worked well, what has worked less well and what we should be striving to keep as we move out of lockdown. Charities commented on some funders’ responsiveness and flexibility but highlighted that this was not a universal experience. Funders spoke of the impressive work that charities continued to deliver during the pandemic despite the challenges of social distancing. However, as we started to unpack our collective experience, some interesting issues surfaced regarding the practices we would like to sustain and encourage. The top three topics arising from our discussions related to: crisis recovery, trust and collaboration.
1. Crisis recovery
Many funders showed flexibility during the crisis response phase of the pandemic. Some were agile in directing funding to where it was most needed. However, charities also highlighted that, for some, responding to short-term need has come at the expense of longer-term needs. Participants noted that ‘funds [have been] diverted to emergency response, impacting longer–term projects’ and there has been ‘so much focus on covid that [it has been] hard to get anyone thinking about anything else.’ Charities expressed a need to start longer-term planning again, as we move from response to recovery, but are uncertain of the grant-making landscape and the type of support available in this next phase. They are conscious of the likely increase in competition for funding and are seeking the same kind of clarity and flexibility in funders’ communications that many received during the initial crisis phase. Funders need to be aware that ‘the crisis will have a long tail for a lot of people’ and their charity partners are feeling acute anxiety.
There is currently a great deal of discussion across the sector regarding trust in grantee-funder relationships. This is a key tenant of the Trust Based Philanthropy framework, and central to the Flexible Funders pledge. Although charities expressed mixed experiences of trust in their funder relationships during the pandemic, many were positive. One charity noted a shift to: ‘More informal communication with funders, a lot more human / personal. Being able to email a funder and really get to engage with them was key.’ Similarly, from a funder point of view, it was ‘valuable to get more insight into what going on behind the scenes, not just website updates. Conversations [are] vital.’ Understandably this is something both funders and charities are keen to sustain. Conversely, other charities felt that many funders had closed their doors to new charities, some of which have not yet reopened, emphasising that trust comes much more easily in existing relationships. Balancing trusted existing relationships with openness to new ones will be critical as we rebuild from the crisis.
Fig. 1: Summary of the grant-making related changes that funders and charities would like to sustain post pandemic
Funders and charities expressed similar hopes for the future—wanting to sustain improvements in trust, power relations, and simplified processes. Our discussions acknowledged the tensions though. One charity noted that they were excited about ‘breaking down barriers between funders and charities—but power dynamics [are] still there.’ Charities and funders would like to see ‘more collaboration and working together’ as we move out of crisis response and into recovery. This includes: ‘Funders and charities working more closely together;’ ‘more collaboration between charity partners;’ ‘greater collaboration between funders;’ and ‘more collaboration on data.’ Charities and funders are also particularly interested in the potential of participatory grant making. For example, we heard calls for a ‘participatory grant–makers’ community of practice’ and ‘more coproduction between users and grant-makers so that funding is steered by those it aims to help.’
Sustaining these positive shifts in grant-making practice itself raises interesting opportunities for collaboration: doing so will require grant-makers, grantees, and the people they serve to come together, in dialogue and trust, to explore how we can make grant-making work better for all.
Above fig. 2: Grant-making related issues that went well during the pandemic
Above fig, 3: Grant-making related issues that went less well during the pandemic
We’d be keen to hear what you think the priorities should be and what this new relationship should look like, comment below and stay informed by signing up to our mailing list for Rethink, Rebuild. Join us on 24th May for our follow up event exploring, what next for the sector.