Funding story: The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation

The grant-making foundation wants to reaffirm its characteristics of flexibility, independence and long-term support.

The Esmee Fairbairn Foundation is one of the grandes dames of the funding field. Since it was established in 1961, it has made grants to organisations as diverse as Asylum Aid, the National Youth Dance Trust and the Get Hooked on Fishing Charitable Trust. It is also one of the few funders putting money into work combating climate change. Last year, its grants amounted to £30m.

This year, the foundation's grant-making strategy has changed. The previous funding streams have been replaced with a main fund, which will distribute about two-thirds of the total funding, and separate smaller strands. "This is because the foundation wants to return to those characteristics of independence, flexibility and being in it for the long term that distinguish charitable foundations from other types of funder," explains Dawn Austwick, chief executive of the foundation.

The main fund is flexible and supports work that focuses on the UK's cultural life, education and the natural environment, and on enabling people who are disadvantaged to participate more fully in society. That includes core costs and some research work where there is a clear practical impact. The new application process is equally flexible. The first stage is effectively a two-page summary of what the applicant wants to do with the money.

The intention is to move away from what Austwick calls "increasingly tightly drawn rules", which have meant that anything that falls outside the programmes - or spans different programmes - hasn't been eligible for funding, even if it has met the overall criterion of improving the quality of life in the UK.

"We felt perhaps we should invite organisations to come to us with their ideas, not present them with ours," says Austwick.

The foundation's smaller strands focus on biodiversity, museum and heritage collections and new approaches to learning.

But will this approach actually change things for applicants?

"We're really open to more organisations - and, yes, this probably means it will be more competitive," says Austwick. "We've already had more applications than I was expecting."

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