What keeps you awake at night and how can this funding help you sleep better?

23rd March 2017

Gilly Green, Comic Relief’s Head of UK Grants, writes about our new Core Strength funding initiative.

In June 2016, as part of our new strategy, we launched a core funding programme to organisations embedded within local communities with a turnover of less than £500K. We already knew that core funding is critical for organisational stability, provides a buffer against unexpected hardship, strengthens independence and provides help with running costs. However, the ethos behind this fund was to let organisations decide what they needed funding for and to tell us why they needed it.

To this end, a key question on the application form essentially asked ‘what keeps you awake at night and how can this funding help you sleep better?’ Answers ranged from paying the rent, heat and light to developing a strategic plan and diversifying income. They provided a unique and compelling insight in to the current state of the UK voluntary sector. Unsurprisingly we had a big response with 1,542 applications and were overwhelmed by the wealth of information they gave us. If demand is at least partially indicative of need, this was clearly telling us something!

Thanks to a review of the application data by NCVO Charities Evaluation Services we now have some useful and compelling insights about the current situation of the UK voluntary sector to share and learn from.

Firstly, REACH. A staggering 95% of applicants had never applied to us before and came from areas as diverse as South Uist in the Outer Hebrides and Dungannon in Northern Ireland, to towns and cities across the UK. Of the total applications, 83% came from outside London. In other words, our funding call reached areas we’ve previously described as ‘cold spots’ for applications.

Second was GROWTH. Despite our assumption that organisations of this size were on the whole losing funding, we were surprised to see that over 50% had actually grown over the last two years. Without further analysis, the significance of this may not be fully understood, but it could suggest that, whilst the funding context remains deeply challenging, the ability to diversify, innovate and seek out new funding remains alive and kicking.

And thirdly, STRATEGIC. Almost three quarters of organisations chose to do something more strategic with the funding than purely meeting running costs, in the hope of bringing much needed stability.

In addition to the funding, we have offered ‘funder plus’ activities. For our part, we’re sharing the things we’re good at as an organisation - digital storytelling, communications, social media and tech. But a key premise of the approach is that the funded organisations are also rich in skills and assets which can be built on, and regional networking and sharing is already underway. We plan to learn a lot from those we support, ensuring fairly light touch monitoring (plans which were unsurprisingly well received!) We will have an in-depth conversation twice a year with grantees to understand their development and explore how useful the funding and support is proving to be. We will use the information from these conversations to learn about the value of this approach, and we plan to share the evidence we build along the way.

What we now know is that given a chance of core funding, organisations will often choose to use that funding to improve their sustainability – to buy time and space for thinking and planning, often to think quite differently or come up with new solutions. So when as funders we look to innovate through programme design, perhaps it’s worth reflecting that there’s already lot of innovation right under our noses. Certainly, our experience of inviting organisations to use funding in any way they choose makes their knowledge about what they need clear and reveals a sector that’s up for thinking differently.

As we celebrate Communities Week 2017 we hope that sharing these insights will be of use to those leading positive change in their communities, as well as to other funders.

View and download the report here.

NCVO Charities Evaluation Services (NCVO CES) is a leading evaluation consultancy for the voluntary sector. For more information see www.ncvo.org.uk/charities-evaluation-services.

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