What people want from the Big Lottery Fund

The BLF is holding a consultation on its next six-year strategy. Susannah Birkwood considers the results so far and talks to its chief executive, Dawn Austwick

The Big Lottery Fund hopes its consultation will enable it to make revolutionary changes to the way in which it gives grants
The Big Lottery Fund hopes its consultation will enable it to make revolutionary changes to the way in which it gives grants

As the largest single funder of the voluntary sector, the Big Lottery Fund and the way it works are subjects of constant interest and debate. 

In recognition of that, the BLF has spent the past five months carrying out a consultation on its next six-year strategy, involving a series of round tables with voluntary sector umbrella bodies in different areas of the UK, conversations with BLF staff and a digital forum on its website that invited charities and members of the public to share their views.

The fund hopes that the consultation – or "conversation" as it prefers to call it, because it did not consist of traditional questionnaires – will enable it to make revolutionary changes to the way in which it gives grants. The new strategy, which will come into force in March next year when the current one expires, will run until 2021, with a review after three years. A degree of continuity is to be expected, but radicalism has also been promised.

The principal thing that the voluntary sector wants from the BLF is money; but a number of would-be grant applicants appear to view the body as more than just a source of cash. On Your Voice Our Vision, the website set up by the BLF to invite contributions to the consultation from stakeholders, there are numerous requests for support in, for example, fundraising and marketing or putting ideas into practice.

The site asks for comments under four main headings: "vibrant communities", "addressing disadvantage", "working together" and "stronger sector". Third Sector has analysed the contributions under each heading, drawn out what appear to be the main themes and asked Austwick and the BLF for their interim response.

Core funding

A frequent request was for more core funding – as opposed to project funding – for charities and community groups. This would cover ongoing expenses such as staff costs and rents. Although some BLF funding programmes, such as Reaching Communities England, already support costs such as employees, volunteers, equipment and venue hire, they do not tend to fund costs that are unrelated to outcomes of particular projects.

"As a beneficiary of lottery funding over the past 10 years, it seems we can keep to our charitable intent only by forever going off course to fulfil the needs of funders," wrote one respondent in reply to the BLF's question about what kind of funder it should be. "Funders need to recognise the worth of what is already being achieved rather than forever seeking to generate new projects. While we are busily putting together another grand scheme, we also hope there will be enough to keep our day-to-day work on track."

The BLF response

The health and resilience of the sector – above and beyond the countless projects it is working on at any one time – is a concern that the BLF says it is taking seriously. The issue has been bubbling under the surface for some time, but is beginning to come to a head because of the increased importance of BLF money to the sector after the cuts in government funding. The BLF says it wants to help organisations crystallise what they are doing and scale up, and more core funding is certainly something it is considering. Another option, Austwick says, is to use an endowment model to provide capital for voluntary organisations that lack reserves and have weak balance sheets. This, she says, would increase their financial strength, making them less vulnerable and able to plan more effectively for the future.

Community centres

Another popular request among consultation respondents was for more support for community centres to pay their basic expenses – such as heating, lighting and stationery costs – or to build new facilities, not only in disadvantaged areas. There were calls for a dedicated funding pot for such centres, such as village halls, memorial halls or church halls, which many see as places where voluntary groups can meet and thrive.

As one respondent put it: "Community centres and village halls form vital community hubs in many rural or isolated communities. At a time when many local shops and pubs are closing, it is incredibly important that these buildings are sustained in order to host and deliver local services. There are very few specific funds that support community buildings, and we would welcome future financial support from the lottery."

There was a real sense of frustration among some respondents that their local community centres had received little or no funding because they were not classed as being in disadvantaged areas.

The BLF response

It's not clear whether the BLF plans to channel more investment into community centres or review its definition of disadvantaged areas and how much it focuses on them. But Austwick is keen to emphasise the importance of communities to the funder's strategy. She says providing demand-led funding to help create vibrant and flourishing communities is a crucial preventive measure in warding off social problems.

"If you've got a vibrant, sustainable, strong community, it's going to be more able to cope or rise to difficulties or challenges," she says. One way of doing this, she says, might be to have a funding officer in each community who could allocate smaller amounts of money on more flexible terms than are currently available. The officer could function almost like a community credit card, she says.

Support for community workers 

Funders cannot create vibrant communities; people can

Respondent to BLF consultation

Another common demand was better support for people who volunteer or work for community groups. One respondent said: "Funders cannot create vibrant communities; people can. No amount of money can create a community. This is why the BLF needs to pour money into person-centred community groups that are already functioning. They could then mentor community champions in other areas to do the same."

Another solution could be to provide more funding for community infrastructure organisations, according to Voda, a charity that provides advice and support to volunteers and community organisations in North Tyneside. It argued on the site that, without organisations such as itself, volunteers would lack support and guidance and miss out on opportunities, and organisations would have difficulty attracting volunteers to maintain their services. Suggested ways in which the BLF could help these people included seconding its own staff – such as administrators, events organisers or marketing experts – to help volunteers develop projects and developing mentoring schemes.

The BLF response

A spokesman said: "We agree that community groups are hugely important, and the value of these groups is created by the people in them. They are the ones who make change happen."

Longer-term funding

Many respondents called for more long-term grants of between five and 10 years for projects that have proved their worth. They said the three-to-five-year grants the BLF provides should continue, although many said three years was not enough. Nicola Dean, who works for Community Organisers in Stockport, Cheshire, commented: "We are fed up with three-year initiatives that pack up once funding finishes. We want to nurture and retain that support and knowledge in our own community for ourselves and wider. Nurturing, however, needs time. It needs to be trusted and left alone to thrive. It will wilt and die if bombarded with short-term outputs and outcomes." Another respondent said that three years left the organisation with only two years to work properly on a project, because it typically took a year to establish.

The BLF response

Mark McGann, deputy director of knowledge-sharing and policy, acknowledges that sustainability is an enormous issue for the funder. He told the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Civil Society and Volunteering in May that the BLF used to "get away with" funding projects for three to five years and then backing away, but that people had more recently been telling it this approach was unsatisfactory. "For us to say 'good luck with that' after three to five years seems to me to be short-sighted," he said. "We owe the world a systematic and clear view of what we will do when we work with bodies that really establish themselves and test new things that work."

Austwick says organisations that are offered three-to-five-year grants are invited to reapply for a further three to five years once that funding expires. "We're pretty good because, unlike many funders, we often fund for five years," she says. "Quite often we'll do two lots of funding, so people will come back for continuation funding. That is a big issue for charities, I know. But we've actually been quite responsive to that. People have to come back with an argument, obviously, but it certainly happens."

Simpler applications

Many respondents said that if a shorter-term grant was all that was available, they would prefer the application process to be proportionately simpler and quicker; smaller groups seeking smaller sums of money made the same request. One respondent complained: "I wish funders would realise that the time would be better spent with me delivering front-line services instead of the annual round of funding applications." Another said: "Your application and monitoring processes need to be proportionate to the size of grants and the capacity of the group funded, and still be robust, because it is public money."

The BLF response

This message appears to be getting through to Austwick, who says the BLF is examining how it can provide money more quickly and reduce the requirements it makes, particularly of small groups. She believes the funder can use technology to speed up the process and, having previously spoken of her desire to be a pioneer in the field of open data, says more innovation among grant-makers could be beneficial. "I don't think funders have been ahead of the curve and we need to think about how we can utilise that," she says.

Interview: Dawn Austwick

Dawn Austwick

The chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund rejects claims that it is too close to government.

Asked what she thinks people want from the Big Lottery Fund, its chief executive, Dawn Austwick, erupts in laughter. "Money," she says. "For them."

Austwick took over the job nine months ago after holding down a range of jobs, including chief executive of the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation, deputy director of the British Museum and project director of the Tate Modern.

"It's been fascinating, wonderful, stimulating," she says of her time so far at the BLF – which is not to say that she hasn't had her share of challenges.

One question the BLF always faces is additionality – whether or not it conforms to the principle that it should not finance things that should be funded by taxation. It has come under fire in the past for being too close to government and has suffered from the perception that the state might see the BLF as a pot of money to use when it runs out of cash. Is that the case? "No," says Austwick. "I don't think I can say anything more about that."

Critics say that the Olympics was a prime example of the government helping itself to funding that should have gone to the voluntary sector. Last year, the Directory of Social Change called for £425m of the £675m the government took from National Lottery sources to be returned immediately: the BLF is due to receive an initial £60m from the winding up of the Olympic Lottery Fund over the next few months.

There is also the concern that the government neglects to fund areas where the BLF is active. Austwick says, however, that similarities between government and BLF funding priorities are purely coincidental. "We're in the business of funding big social issues," she says. "We're always going to be bumping up against other people."

Criticism has also been levelled at the BLF for its use of "solicited bids", where it approaches organisations directly rather than holding an open competition – a practice that has left it vulnerable to accusations of cronyism. Austwick says she would be reluctant to stop the practice because she believes it is a way to limit the resources that organisations use up in making applications.

She says she encourages groups that are running new and innovative projects in England to approach the BLF themselves for "single awards", which are not part of existing programmes. This practice has been suspended, however, while the BLF discusses how to make it more transparent.

"The funder's dilemma is always 'how much work do you make other people do and to what avail?'" she says. "You particularly don't want people to put a lot of effort in if they've really got no chance of succeeding."

Working in partnership

The BLF is thinking about partnering with other funders: in scenarios where it receives more applications that it can handle, it could look at passing on some of these to other grant-makers. Dawn Austwick says: "Our strategy is about getting a bit smarter about where we are in the ecology and working with others to achieve more in a complementary way."

Perhaps in response to widespread discontent in the sector over funders' fascination with innovation, Austwick hints that, over the next six years, the BLF will focus less on research and development and innovation-stage funding, and more on follow-on rounds for projects that have already been funded at an earlier stage. "Other funders might be better at R&D and innovation funding, because they've got more of those skills, but they've got less money," she says. "We've got more money and might be better at coming along at the next point in that process."

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