The two steps every grantmaker can take to transform the nonprofit sector

Third Sector Promotion

Grant-making organisations are uniquely placed to help the non-profit sector evolve and meet the needs of our fast-changing world, says Jonny Elliot, non-profit strategic industry adviser at

It’s been a challenging year for grant-makers. Not only have they had to deal with existing grantees who’ve furloughed staff and struggled to meet grant obligations, but they’ve also seen new demands from charities for Covid relief funding in response to limited government support.

At the same time, movements like #FixTheForm have emerged, placing fresh demands on grant-makers to improve their processes, and rethink their expectations of grantees who sometimes struggle to balance the delivery of programmes with the demands of funder reporting requirements.

What has driven the expectations of non-profits when it comes to grantee experience? In part, it’s the momentum we’ve seen in non-profit digital transformation, which was already growing before Covid hit, and is, at its heart, focused on user experience. In the last 12 months, digital has shifted from being a supportive function to a fundamental means of mission delivery, as many non-profits have moved to online channels in order to engage with their supporters and programme participants. The focus on user experience that this requires has raised the sector’s skills and expectations when it comes to engagement with all types of stakeholders. And it has also increased the demand for new forms of funding to help non-profits take advantage of digital approaches.


Driving the sector’s impact through digital

The past year has been a perfect storm for grantmakers, but it has also given the sector a tremendous opportunity to reconsider its strategy, and the role that digital can play in driving impact. “Grant-makers have a really important role to play in funding digital transformation and Tech for Good,” says Olly Dawson, senior portfolio manager at Comic Relief. “Digital technology can help revolutionise how we address complex social challenges. More and more charities and social enterprises are now seeking funding to create products and services that use digital technology so that they can deliver better support to their beneficiaries.”

Indeed, digital gives non-profits the opportunity to reach new audiences in a way that wouldn’t have been possible through traditional face-to-face methods. A strategy that blends both in-person and online engagement will be key if the sector is to raise the funds needed to tackle today’s challenges, and also scale its efforts to the size of the problems we face. Covid has set back our collective progress towards many of the Sustainable Development Goals, and grant-makers have a crucial role to play in providing funding that will help the sector close this gap.

“In light of Covid, non-profits also need to become more efficient and resilient, and digital can provide solutions to help with that,” says Dawson. “However, it can be tricky for grant-makers to know where to start. Some that we’ve spoken to have told us that it’s difficult to assess an application and be confident that they’re funding the right projects. For example, what does a good Tech for Good project look like?”

It can be easy to get overwhelmed by the jargon and new ways of working that come with digital. But we should remember that any investment, whether online or in-person, must contribute to a non-profit’s theory of change, vision and mission. If you don’t see this shine through in a request for funding, it’s probably because the concept needs more work. “Based on our learning, funders should consider running programmes which combine financial support with ongoing capacity building to provide the best chance of successful outcomes,” says Dawson.

Communities like the Tech For Good Hub and CAST have been created to support funders who want to learn about how to add Tech For Good funding to their programmes and help the sector increase its impact.


Transforming the grantee experience

Comic Relief’s leading role in pioneering Tech For Good has not been their only focus. “We have also been focused on transforming the experience for grantees across all our programmes,” says James Morris, Comic Relief’s product manager for impact and investment. “We’ve launched a new grant-management platform on Salesforce, which is enabling us to deliver a more flexible and intuitive experience to both our staff and our grantees.”

Comic Relief launched Salesforce Nonprofit Cloud in spring 2020, just as Covid was escalating. The launch coincided with the charity’s Big Night In, which raised over £70m for organisations delivering vital services to those in need. “We were able to quickly launch the call through Salesforce, and of the £30.5m we received to distribute, we have been able to grant £22.1m to 229 organisations so far,” says Morris. “We are also using Salesforce to track existing grants to 600 other organisations and we have a roadmap in place to integrate all our calls, as well our monitoring, evaluation and learning activities.”

So, how can grant-makers transform the sector? Firstly, by focusing on their own grantee experience – and investing in the digital skills and solutions needed to improve grantee outcomes. Secondly, by considering their own role in launching new programmes that drive digital innovation, such as Comic Relief and the Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s £1m ‘Build’ digital development fund. Both steps will be crucial if the nonprofit sector is to evolve and meet the needs of our fast-changing world.

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