Caroline Mason: Why we need to flip the model of grant reporting

A system in which charities have too little say and funders too much is a broken one

Caroline Mason
Caroline Mason

How do you see reporting to funders? Part of the price a charity pays for a grant? Paperwork to be processed so that funders can get the money out of the door?

I think grant reporting is a symptom of a broken system, one in which charities and social enterprises have too little say and funders too much.

I want to show you what a better system could look like for everyone and explain why we’ve been working with the Institute for Voluntary Action Research, a group of fellow funders, and some of the organisations we fund to explore how we might start moving towards it.

When it comes to impact reporting, there should be a hierarchy:

  • First should be those that experience and live with the consequences of today’s issues.
  • Next might be the front-line workers, practitioners and staff working with the realities of them every day.
  • After them the organisation’s trustees or directors.
  • Then policy-makers or other decision-makers who could influence the work or improve the root causes.

Only then should come the funders. Reporting to us should be less important than to all those other groups – we are the last in that chain.

If a charity or social enterprise was able to plan and report on its progress in the way that made most sense to the most important stakeholders – its beneficiaries, staff, trustees – it could focus time and resources on its core work, its reason for existence.

It could focus its energy on fulfilling its whole strategy, rather than continually breaking down that strategy into small and different pieces for various funders. After all, trusts and foundations – which are charities too – get to focus our energies without having to deal with these distortions every day.

If funders want organisations to have strong governance, we should trust the reporting that is demanded by that governance. Why would we ask for anything different from what that organisation would report to its own board? If we back a charity with our money, we should trust it to manage all the resources of that organisation, including our own contribution.

When I first started as chief executive at the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, I was baffled by the lack of contextual data available to make grant decisions.

Before 360Giving, there was no easy way to find out who was funding an issue, or location, or what other work was taking place there. This is changing, but does each funder asking for individual private reports, rather than using charities’ existing reporting, make it harder for further innovation and data sharing within the sector?

Unless we all – funders, charities, and social enterprises – see ourselves as a network, change will be slow. When we started working with IVAR on how to improve grant reporting, we wanted the organisations we funded to be in the room from the very start.

We needed to question our assumptions. We thought that organisations would care about reporting forms and formats, but instead heard that they wanted to prioritise relationships and conversation. They wanted to see us, and for us to see them, as partners in creating change.

The new principles for reporting that IVAR and Esmée Fairbairn have published do not constitute a revolution. They start from where we are and give helpful examples of ways that funders can change what they ask of the organisations they fund, to start shifting power and accountability.

You will notice that all the principles talk about actions that funders – rather than the charities or social enterprises we fund – can take.

At the moment, the system is weighted completely in favour of funders, so we need to take the lead in changing that.

It is not easy to change our own culture, let alone the whole system itself, and different foundations will be on the journey at different points, but I hope we can all agree on the end game: that reporting which strengthens the organisations we fund will ultimately make us more effective.

Caroline Mason is chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation

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