The 2015 Project: Grantees with attitude

Guest post by Dawn Austwick, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund.

This blog post is part of the 2015 Project – your chance to tell NCVO what our policy priorities should be ahead of the next General Election.

There are many aspects to the debate about the future of funding for the voluntary sector. For example, I wrote recently about the role and value of grant funding in enabling the sector to transform people’s lives. And so I am following with interest this debate about issues such as good commissioning, early action, and how to get the right mix of funding between contracts, grants, social investment, selling services, crowd funding, individual donations and much more.

But in this post, I want to take a different perspective on the future of funding. As Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, I believe a key aspect of my job is to help us keep on improving and be a more responsive grant maker.  It’s important that our work as a funder is rooted in the needs and demands of the sector and communities we support.

But to be honest I also want to disentangle the sometimes complex (confused?) relationships that can exist between grant maker and grant holder.  I want to encourage grant holders to tell us how it is.

To enable us to get better at supporting the sector, we need you to keep on doing great work with the funding we make available, and we need you to be able to think about how to show the value of your ideas, and be able to demonstrate the impact of what you’ve done.

But we also need you to be honest with us, and other funders, about what you really want, about what is helpful and what isn’t!  We need to invert the power relationships so that you serve your beneficiaries and influence your funders, not the other way round.

In short, we need grantees with attitude who forgo their destiny despite difficult times and keep funders on their toes and not vice versa!

Creating grantees with attitude

Now, this is easy to say and hard to do. So what practical steps could be taken to help this inversion so that practitioners lead and the funders follow?

1. The open data agenda has huge potential

The potential derived from funders, big and small, sharing publicly where their money goes helps us all better understand impact and need. It also builds trust and transparency and it gives charities and community groups information, and information is power. It can be used to hold us to account, to adapt our approaches on the basis of feedback and insight, and it can be used to make us think and work more collaboratively than we might ordinarily do. There are all sorts of ways that we can do more to use our data and knowledge to help develop new solutions, but there will be many good ideas which would never have occurred to us but which our data can be useful for. That’s pretty empowering.

2. Funders can compare, contrast and learn more ourselves

While we can’t promise to get to one standard monitoring form or application process which works across all funders, there is great potential for funders to work together better. For example, there is excellent work being done by a group of funders working together to prevent child sexual exploitation and support victims to independent lives free of violence and abuse. Different funders are working to a shared agenda developed by experts and informed by the sector, supporting work through service delivery, knowledge exchange and young people’s participation. But we can also have an open conversation about our respective strengths and weaknesses and you can tell us what you think too, so we complement rather than crowd out each other, something a funder of our scale at the Big Lottery Fund has to be very mindful of.

3. It is always going to be difficult for grant holders to give candid feedback directly to funders

In the USA, the Centre for Effective Philanthropy carries out grantee perception reporting for more than 300 different funders, enabling funders to check in with their grantees and reflect on what’s working and what could be improved with their grant making practices. One or two UK funders, like Paul Hamlyn, already participate in this approach, but would something like that be a useful resource for improving collective funder performance here in the UK?

Get involved

Those are just three ideas to contribute to this conversation, and I am sure that you have many more.  In the past few weeks it’s fair to say that I’ve already met quite a few grantees with great attitude and I want to meet more in 2014.

For your chance to tell NCVO what we should be doing in our policy work on working with government, answer our three quick questions.


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