Debra Allcock Tyler: Fund the charity, not the project

Funding restricted to specific projects often means services cannot be personalised and individuals in need cannot be helped, writes our columnist

Debra Allcock Tyler
Debra Allcock Tyler

My brother has multiple-trauma post-traumatic stress disorder from his military service, during which he witnessed some truly horrific events, not least while he was serving with the UN peace-keeping force in Rwanda.

It has taken years, first, for him to realise there was something terribly wrong and, second, for it to be properly diagnosed and a course of treatment recommended. After navigating the NHS, he ended up in the arms of Combat Stress, a charity that does fantastic work supporting severely traumatised military service people.

But Combat Stress couldn't quite meet his needs, even though it wanted to. Why? Because it faces the same issues as most other charities in that the funding it gets is very often for specific projects and comes with restrictions on how the money can be used. There is, for example, funding for a highly successful six-week retreat. However, not all victims of military-induced PTSD either need or can afford the time to attend the programme, my brother included. Combat Stress does its best to meet the needs of those for whom this programme isn't appropriate, but is hidebound to a certain degree because of its funding.

And this is not the fault of Combat Stress. Many, many funders - completely inadvertently, I'm sure - are often not getting the impact they want from their money because of the restrictions they place upon it. When you are dealing with highly vulnerable people, you simply have to be flexible. You cannot assume a one-size fits all solution. This is something we intuitively know to be true and is backed up by evidence, so why do funders so often insist on funding a particular project or methodology or intervention?

The point is that how you fund is just as important, if not more so, than the fact that you fund. This is particularly germane at the moment because of two key developments: first, the government's blind insistence that payment-by-results contracts are the best way to fund our sector; and, second, yet another round of comprehensive spending review cuts, meaning even less money for charities that serve the poor and vulnerable in our society. Sadly, our government appears largely to ignore our sector's experience of how to fund to maximise impact, so it is even more important that other funders - trusts, foundations and corporates - think hard about how they give.

We need funders to understand that as long as you fund the project and not the charity you run the risk that amazing, brave, yet suffering human beings, like my brother, will fall through the cracks.

I say fund the charity, not the project. Agree the impact you're looking for and then leave it to them to work out how best to deliver it. Charities are not out to fool or fiddle funders. For the most part all they care about is serving their beneficiaries. Don't let the way you fund them make that harder.

Debra Allcock Tyler is chief executive of the Directory of Social Change

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