Positioning charities for funding through and after Covid-19
Back on Friday 13 March, a date that feels so long ago now, I woke up to breaking news that the coronavirus had caused stock markets to crash and major events were beginning to be cancelled. The speaker at the seminar I was attending spent the first hour of the day talking about the need to prepare for the impending recession and my social media feeds were awash with charity leaders and fundraisers speculating on what to do.
That Sunday, I went into my office to think about what this meant for our sector and wrote an article setting out the likely impacts on funding and what to do next. My advice was to communicate transparently with your supporters, to explain what the pandemic means for your charity in terms of delivering your services; looking after your beneficiaries, staff and volunteers; the impact on your financial position; and how you are responding to these challenges.
I predicted that people would want to help and thankfully that has been the case with many appeals performing better than they would in normal circumstances and additional grant funding being secured.
Since then we have seen further support from the Government through the Job Retention Scheme and the £750 million announced for the sector, as well as a lot of emergency funding grant programmes from trusts and companies. This funding has been focused on the emergency response to support vulnerable groups during the lockdown.
Now, as we emerge from the safety of our homes and funders begin to think beyond the next few months, how can we best position our charities to secure funding for the “recovery phase” and beyond?
This is partly about ensuring your case for support is strong in terms of the key criteria that funders always look at and partly about understanding your place in a world that has been changed by Covid-19 (by that I mean the pandemic and the lockdown).
WHAT IS THE NEED/PROBLEM THAT YOUR CHARITY/SERVICE EXISTS TO ADDRESS? HOW HAS THIS CHANGED AS A RESULT OF COVID-19? The answer may be a relatively subtle change. For example, if you support children with autism they are going to have the same support needs as before but there may be some additional issues such as increased anxiety, and there may be changes to how you can provide support due to social distancing measures.
Alternatively, the answer may be a significant change. For example, if you previously provided a lunch club for lonely older people, but they are now too scared to attend and have developed mental health issues such as anxiety and depression. In this case your beneficiaries’ needs have completely changed, raising big questions for your charity such as how do you meet those needs and are you best placed to do so?
Surely it will look odd to funders if you were to apply for exactly the same service you provided before with no reference to the impact of Covid-19 and the change to the context you work in. Maybe you can adapt your service or maybe you need to work in partnership with a mental health charity to address these new issues and reintroduce your beneficiaries to the social activities you offer, which they will still need for their wellbeing in the long term.
As always, funders will be looking for evidence that you have consulted with your beneficiaries to understand what their needs are now and whether your proposal is what will best meet those needs.
WHAT ELSE HAS CHANGED FOR YOUR COMMUNITY? Whether a local community or a community of interest (e.g. people with a particular health condition), funders want to know that you have a good understanding of other activities and services which people can access. This may have changed if some charities or groups no longer exist or have stopped certain activities, or if statutory services have reduced support.
Funders want to know that you are aware of what other support is available to your community, that you have ensured your activity is adding value to this rather than duplicating, and that you work in partnership where appropriate.
DO YOU HAVE A CLEAR PLAN? Funders typically want to see a clear plan of activity, so they can see exactly what it is they are funding, i.e. if they give £50,000 how many people will you reach, how many of x output will you deliver, what will be the outcomes and impact.
But we live in a complex world and as we plan for the recovery phase and beyond, there is still so much uncertainty over whether Covid-19 will go away or spike again and what the economy will look like. Will funders factor this into their assessment process or will they revert to the “we need to know exactly what our money is spent on” mentality?
During the initial emergency phase, there was definitely a shift toward trusting charities to get on with it and spend grants on meeting immediate needs, although it should be noted that many of these grants have been relatively small. I think funders will still want a clear plan but they may be more open to you stating that it is subject to change due to the uncertain environment we are operating in.
I certainly think that funders will appreciate seeing your approach to learning and evaluation factoring this in. For example, continually consulting with beneficiaries to understand changing needs and whether your activities are making a difference so that you can adapt if required.
HOW WILL YOU DEMONSTRATE IMPACT? Despite the complexity of our lives in the real world, funders tend to respond well to the “slightly” artificial model of inputs-outputs-outcomes-impact, e.g. the funder provides a grant to pay staff salaries – to run x health education workshops and x cooking classes – which leads to behaviour change – resulting in reduced obesity.
However, in reality we live complex lives with many influences outside these workshops and classes, including media, social, psychological, economic, biological, medical and so on.
In recent years, we have begun to see a shift in the funding world (with some major grant-makers and commissioners) from rigid impact frameworks to more of a trust based approach where funding should enable rather than control. We have seen more of this in the emergency response to Covid-19 and it will be interesting to see if this continues through the recovery phase and beyond.
In the context of trust based funding, evaluation is less about impact measurement and more a tool for learning about and improving practice. In a complex environment, learning is a continuous process. There is no such thing as “what works” because “what works” is always changing. ‘What works’ is a continuous process of learning and adaption.
WHAT DIFFERENCE DO YOU MAKE? While there may be changes in how we talk about impact, articulating the difference our charities make is fundamental and will always be essential. Depending on your cause and the type of work you do there will be a range of ways that you can show what difference you make and therefore what difference your funders are making by supporting your charity.
Which charity do you think of as making a big difference? Why do you feel that way? While data is important, I bet it’s not because 90% of respondents to their feedback survey said x is it? One way that almost every charity can demonstrate the difference it makes is through the stories of the people who benefit.
So, always remember to keep the voice of your community in your case for support, applications and appeals. It should be the people you support who articulate their needs and how your support makes a difference to them.
POSITIONING YOUR CHARITY FOR THE FUTURE. Your charity may have some big questions to answer in terms of what it does, why and what difference it makes. Reviewing your case for support can be a useful prompt to help think through some of these questions, or it may need updating having answered these questions as an organisation.
Either way, having an up to date case for support that reflects the changes to your community resulting from Covid-19 and how you are learning and adapting to this new reality, will be essential to positioning your charity for funding in the recovery phase and beyond.