The recent launch of our Five Years of Funder Plus review solicited some interesting comments at our launch event and in the Twittersphere. The review shared our learning with the sector after five years of capacity-building work for our grantees.
Some suggested that the basis of the model was one of deficits, not assets, and questioned whether small charities saw support like this as an admission of failure and, indeed, whether they wanted or needed it at all. Others wondered whether we were creating a Rolls-Royce service for some charities, but a Lada service for others, and what the impact on local infrastructure might be.
It’s always interesting to me that some of us who run large charities seem to regard their smaller siblings as a different species. In fact, we have much in common. I know that when I chaired the disability charity Contact – which is a "large" charity by National Council for Voluntary Organisations definitions – it had the same constant struggle to juggle a budget dominated by large restricted blocks of income and a reducing sliver of unrestricted income.
This cash pressure created time pressure as non-direct service costs were constantly stripped back and those who were left did more and worked harder to maintain its terrific work with families of disabled children.
The same is true for the 64,000 medium-sized charities with incomes between £25,000 and £1m. They are cash-strapped and time-poor. Their strength in the experience of delivery often belies their weakness in leadership experience.
Many leaders in small charities are only one or two jobs away from being on the front line of service. They’ve become leaders because they knew what was needed and how to achieve it, but they won’t all have been on training courses to prepare them for management roles.
So sometimes when we ask "what do you or your organisation need?", we’re faced with bemusement. These charities aren’t used to grant-makers looking beyond the "project" at organisational health or staff skills, and often they’ve never had the cash to stop and consider what they could benefit from.
But when they realise there’s really no catch, we’ve found that small charities are thirsty for personal and organisational development support, and we’ll offer as much as we think they have capacity to absorb.
We’ve learned that support needs to be phased and implemented as trust is developed. We’ve seen that diagnostics should be honest and driven by the organisation to scope and plan its needs, not by the funder’s ideas. When it works best, the grantee becomes the customer, the funder the supplier.
Of course, some have said we should simply give the development cash as the ultimate in liberation. We’ve questioned this too, and in future we might look at back-filling time for people to focus on their development. But as a contractor we can manage scale and make greater demands of our Funder Plus suppliers.
We commission them based on customer feedback, so when charities evaluate the support they’ve had they’re actually shaping the offer for charities ahead of them. And by evaluating and checking suppliers, we’re doing the due diligence and brokering that would take so much time for each individual charity.
Back to where we started: is Funder Plus about bolstering a select few charities above the rest? Right now we offer capacity-building support only to those we fund, but that might change in time. Until then, we’re recognising that robust organisations will fare better than those funded for delivery and projects alone.
The sector is only as strong as its people, and if they’re performing there’s no end to the potential for transferring knowledge, training and good practice. And what should funders be transferring? A lot more than cheques. Funder Plus is a much more nuanced and specialist offer, and we’ve yet to get it entirely right. But in trying we’re getting closer to being the partner we think makes for stronger charities, and stronger societies overall.
Paul Streets is chief executive of the Lloyds Bank Foundation