Interview: Fiona Ellis

The Funding Commission chair Fiona Ellis says proposals should be seen as investment rather than spending

Fiona Ellis
Fiona Ellis

The National Council for Voluntary Organisations' Funding Commission is being perfectly realistic in asking the government for £87m in grant funding over three years, according to its chair, Fiona Ellis.

"If the government is serious about civil society, it should make these modest investments," she says in an interview with Third Sector. "We haven't asked for the earth, and we haven't promised to deliver the earth.

"We're asking for something sensible, and we want the government to see our requests as investment, not spending."

Funding the Future, published by her commission today, calls for a £60m, three-year restructuring fund and a £27m, three-year programme of "big society grants" to small voluntary organisations. It also asks the government to reform commissioning and consider match-funding for a new campaign to improve fundraising standards.

Ellis, the interim director of Philanthropy UK and former director of the Northern Rock Foundation, says she held meetings with civil servants to discuss the report's proposals. "None of them said our plans were unrealistic or were not going to work," she says. "But they couldn't make any commitments because it was before the comprehensive spending review."

Now that the spending review is complete and the Funding Commission's proposals are public, how hopeful is Ellis they will be taken up? "I can't predict the path the government will take because that's up to them," she says. "But I think it would be wise for the government to respond quickly to our report, at least."

She says the commission's proposals will appear more relevant to the sector than some previous government programmes.

"The sector didn't respond well to Labour's Modernisation Fund because it didn't like the word 'modernisation'," she says. "If I were running a small charity, which requires a minor budgeting miracle anyway, and someone told me to modernise, I'd say 'give us a break'."

Ellis warns, however, that as well as hoping for support from the government and the private sector, charities must do their bit to make the best of the difficult period ahead: "If the sector isn't willing to up its game, it can't expect support from everybody else."

Working out a way to measure impact is a key part of this, she says. "At the moment, most people working in the sector measure their success by instinct," she says. "They roll their eyes at the idea of impact measurement because it sounds like jargon being imposed on them from outside."

Even when charities do measure their impact, Ellis says, they do so in a way that causes confusion.

"Everybody invents their own models, so funders can't compare two organisations.

"Charities working in the same part of the sector, such as domestic violence, should get together and write their own rules for measuring their impact. Then they, and funders, should use these common standards."

Ellis says she is glad the publication of the report, originally slated for release before the general election, overran by six months. "It would have been lost if we'd produced it just before the election," she says. "This way, we've been able to understand the new government's agenda and fit it around that."

Ellis acknowledges that the report is lengthy and detailed. But when asked which are the crucial points that most need to be picked up on, she laughs.

"We've already condensed it to 12 proposals," she says. "I couldn't possibly shorten it any more."


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