Funding story: from funded to funder

Whether you are applying for or awarding the cash, grant funding can be complex. So is it better to give than to receive?

Many third sector organisations apply for grants and then use the money they've received to award grants themselves. Some - particularly those in the medical field - have been doing it for years, because research is an integral part of their mission. Others decide to take it on as their remit and income expands.

Put crudely, this means shifting from being the supplicant to being the person in power. This isn't necessarily a comfortable position to be in - suppose you make the wrong decisions?

The Alzheimer's Society was one of the first organisations to build the idea of user involvement into the way it awards grants. Since 1999, it has run a network that now involves people with dementia, carers and ex-carers, who scrutinise research proposals and have a say on whether they're taken further.

Susanne Sorensen, the society's head of research, explains: "We're often asked to fund research that isn't possible at the time, but people are surprised that our members have the same priorities as scientists."

However, the society already has a long history of grant making - user involvement supplemented this, but the basic mechanics were already there.

Getting those mechanics in place requires a lot of work, as organisations such as the Community Development Finance Association have found. The CDFA is the trade association for community development finance institutions.

It has provided a capacity-building fund since 2004 and is itself grant-funded by the Esmee Fairbairn Foundation.

Sarah McGeehan, deputy chief executive of the CDFA, says: "We've had to understand how to create the infrastructure, assess the applications, communicate with successful and unsuccessful applicants, manage resources and review the product. The biggest challenge was creating the 'pipeline' of applicants; our members didn't initially understand what we were making available and what they could use it for."

The CDFA discovered that some organisations find it difficult to spare the time and resources to apply for funding. However, the fund is open only to organisations that have completed an initial programme, Barclays Step Change.

It's good to be able to give, but it's not always easy. Grants remain complex, whichever side you're on.

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