What makes a charity strong? (Hint: it’s not the computers…)

What makes a charity strong? (Hint: it’s not the computers…)

Rocket Science has helped many charities understand their strengths and weaknesses through our Organisational Strengths Review service.  James Turner highlights what we have learned about their needs.

What makes a charity strong? Is it the people? The ethos? The work that they do? Just possibly the resources that they have?

Over the past two years, we have been finding out by surveying several hundred staff, trustees and volunteers across 15 different charities that have received Building Capabilities funding from the Big Lottery Fund.

First of all, just a word about Building Capabilities funding: it’s a great idea! The Lottery has long been criticised for solely funding project costs: at the end of the project, the charity is then back to square one. Possibly square minus one, because the group will have grown and employed new people who now won’t have any funding. Building Capabilities funding, however, is not project related – they are awards of up to £15,000 build the skills and abilities of the whole organisation.

The first step of a Building Capabilities award is to carry out an ‘organisational strengths review’ to identify areas to focus on with the rest of the funding. And, as I say above, Rocket Science has now carried out reviews with 15 charities. Of course, the word ‘charity’ is just as broad as the word ‘business’: the challenges of running Oxfam rather than a small local charity are as different as, say, running Sainsbury’s rather than a corner shop. We have typically worked with charities at the ‘Small to Medium Enterprise’ end of the spectrum: staff in the ones to tens, rather than hundreds; turnover in the £100,000s rather than millions.

A major part of our strength review is a 32 question survey asking about everything from governance to leadership to project management (try it out here for free). Collecting the responses together from all the surveys we’ve done, there are some clear trends emerging:

It’s about the people…

We send the survey to staff, trustees and volunteers at the charities we work with and by some distance the statement they agree with most strongly is:

  

“Our staff and volunteers have the skills and experience to meet the organisation’s objectives and goals”

One of the points coming through is the breadth of skills that charity staff typically have. Expertise often goes far beyond people’s job descriptions: project officers are often marketing experts; finance managers know the theory of evidencing impact.

It’s about the purpose…

The other major strength of charities is that people strongly relate to the mission and purpose of the organisation. And they feel their groups have clear, shared values which support their purpose. That’s the great thing about the charity sector: people want to come to work on a Monday morning because they believe in the purpose of what they are doing.

It’s not about the computers…

At the other end of the scale, across the 15 groups, the statement that people most often disagreed with was:

“Our computers, technology and software fully meet our needs and the needs of the people who work for us”

Sometimes, ‘disagree’ is far too mild a word. Comments such as, “Tech and systems are appalling! The support we receive from our IT provider is terrible…” are surprisingly frequent.

To conclude, BLF’s Building Capabilities funding is a great way of supporting charities beyond project funding. Another beyond-project-funding idea for BLF or other funders would be an ‘IT upgrade and support’ funding programme. And if you are reading this and your business is providing reasonably priced and responsive IT support, then, believe me, wherever you are based, there will be local charities looking for your help!

 

James is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our North East office.  You can check out his profile here.

2017 Rich List . . . some challenges and opportunities for London

2017 Rich List . . . some challenges and opportunities for London

John Griffiths reflects on the opportunities for London by rethinking philanthropy in the capital.

The Sunday Times’ publication of the Rich List 2017 shows that the rich are getting richer. The wealthiest 1000 individuals, who enjoy a combined total wealth of £685 billion, saw this increase by 14%, or £82.5 billion, in the last year.[1]

Much of the reaction to the List has focused on how it shows the UK is becoming more unequal. Whilst the combined wealth of the richest top 500 (£580bn) is more than the £576bn of the top 1000 last year, the mega-rich now have more wealth than the poorest 40% of all households in the country. According to research by the Equality Trust, their increase in wealth last year (equivalent to £226m per day) would pay the grocery bills for all food bank users nationwide for 56 years, or for adult social care in England for the next four.[2]

The understandable media interest in who features on the latest Rich List overshadows other intriguing aspects to the annual compilation. In particular, where this vast wealth lies and, at a time of swingeing cuts to public spending, what some of the rich choose to do with their money. The List’s information on the location of the rich, and their increasing inclination to give their wealth away (£3.2bn in 2017; up 20% on 2016), represents a fascinating challenge for London.

London is home to more billionaires than any other city in the world. Of the 134 billionaires in Britain, 86 (64%) are based in the capital. New York, in second place, has 74; the highest other ranking European capital is Paris with 33. Yet London’s increasing polarisation of wealth is potentially the greatest risk to its economic success.

London is a city of contradictions. The capital contains the highest proportion (15%) of people in families with incomes in the bottom tenth nationally and the second highest proportion (15%) of people in the top tenth, after the South East.[3] The London Fairness Commission reported last year that for every £1 of wealth owned by the bottom 10% of London households, the top 10% owns £172. In short, London is again ‘becoming a city of great divides.’[4]

“Time for a Peabody moment?”

This apparent “re-Victorianization of London” has put the names of the great nineteenth century individual and corporate philanthropists back in the spotlight. Their altruism may have been driven as much by the perceived threat to the social fabric from the massed urban poor, as a sense of unfairness. Yet, in its call to arms (“Time for a ‘Peabody’ moment?”), the London Fairness Commission heralded “a new philanthropic age [believing] that the time is ripe for London’s wealthiest residents and businesses to come together in an exemplary social philanthropic effort.”[5]

Halting the apparent slide back to Victorian levels of inequality should be a strong argument for individual and corporate philanthropists to engage in shaping an economy which can both deliver “inclusive growth” and sustain a healthy civil society.[6] However, the work to date on The Way Ahead, a new vision of support for civil society in London has struggled to include business. Defining civil society in a way that highlights the distinctions between the different sectors, The Way Ahead is too last century for our increasingly common purpose. “Civil society is where people take action to improve their own lives or the lives of others and act where government or the private sector don’t.” (p6) It will remain difficult to motivate business if we do not acknowledge that an enabling state and an enlightened private sector are as much a part of civil society as voluntary and community organisations, or informal associations.

Responsible businesses can and do take action to improve the lives of others.[7] However, as with individual philanthropy, corporate giving (of money, time or resources) will always remain an unreliable substitute for state spending for reasons which academics label as “philanthropic insufficiency” and “philanthropic particularism.”[8] “Philanthropic insufficiency” is the realisation that charitable giving will never replace the redistributive role of the state because it is unable to meet the scale of need. London local government receives approximately £22 billion of funding to spend on services.[9] This is almost four times greater than the total cash giving by private sources in London (£5.6 billion). “Philanthropic particularism” is the recognition that donors choose which causes to invest in, responding to needs which they can relate to and not on the basis of objective evidence.[10] This can give philanthropic activities their strength, but also means that they cannot ensure consistency and equality.

And yet individual and corporate philanthropy has a far longer history than public spending in tackling the capital’s social needs. This is not to underplay the influence of the state, but rather to put its recent shrinking in historical context.[11] Philanthropy will never be able to replace state-funded provision. However, it does have the transformative potential to mitigate public sector cuts by meeting needs that lie outside the responsibility of government, as well as to supplement existing but diminishing state provision. Identifying where this can and should happen in London is the key challenge for London’s stakeholders engaged in The Way Ahead.

The exact level or proportion of giving in London is not known. Cash giving in the capital is estimated at £5.6 billion a year from all private sources, accounting for 29% of all UK giving. This is a significantly greater proportion than London’s contribution to UK GDP (22%).[12] In terms of volunteering, a recent report by City Philanthropy[13]found that 39% of London employees volunteer on an ad hoc and/or regular basis.

Whilst the UK in general, and London in particular, are generous in terms of the amount of money, time and insight given to charitable causes, there is a strong perception that London and Londoners have the potential to scale up their philanthropic activities in the capital. Businesses in London would like to be better integrated within their wider community and have greater social impact. Companies told the London Fairness Commission that they would like to scale up their successful philanthropic initiatives so as to reach a greater proportion of London’s population.[14]

The harder challenge of making philanthropy more effective is linked to one of the inherent weaknesses in private giving; the difficulty of influencing such activity so that it can be coordinated and directed at meeting the most pressing needs of Londoners. This is likely to be contentious on at least two counts. Firstly, reaching a workable consensus on what the priority needs for London are and, secondly, agreeing on the most appropriate vehicle to coordinate and (re)distribute philanthropy alongside public, trust and foundation funds. Opportunities do exist, however, to shape this agenda at a number of levels which are both place and theme-based. A few of these are summarised here as “Give More; “Give Local” and “Give Together.”

(1)  Give More

The Mayor of London, potentially working with the incumbent Lord Mayor and the City of London, can make greater use of the Bully Pulpit to challenge London’s business community to co-invest in future strategic priorities for a civil society. London is home to the corporate HQs of many of the FTSE500. In 2014, the top 500 companies in the UK spent £3.25bn on CSR-related activity. This sounds impressive. It actually represents just 0.026% of profit and well below the 0.5% benchmark which only very few corporate citizens manage to reach.[15] London’s civic leaders need to challenge business to give more (following the example of Mayors Bloomberg and De Blasio in New York City):

  • Harnessing CSR – the old, paternalistic models of top-down CSR (ie the board “adopting a charity” for its staff to fundraise for – and appropriating the credit) are changing. Employees, particularly millennials forging careers in the City, want to know they are working for corporates which do good as well as make money. This is becoming a powerful driver and top companies now have to compete for the best recruits on the basis of their social responsibility. A good example of an initiative which has tapped into this zeitgeist is BeyondMe; there are new models out there which need promoting and scaling up as they offer more sustained engagement of corporate resources to support civil society organisations and address social needs.

 

Awards and recognition schemes – there are quite a few awards already – the Lord Mayor’s Dragon Awards, for example, have now been going for 30 years. In Rocket Science’s recent review for the City Bridge Trust of the City of London’s initiatives to promote philanthropy, we argued that opportunities are being missed for a more coordinated and joined up approach between Mansion House and City Hall to champion and encourage corporate giving and corporate community engagement in the capital, potentially linking such action to the Mayor of London’s proposed “Business Compact”.

  • Exploiting mayoral powers of convening – the philanthropy review for City Bridge Trust highlighted the soft power of both the Mayor and the Lord Mayor and how this can be used to corral and persuade businesses to do more for London. The Mayor’s Fund to Advance New York City has been a cornerstone of the former and current Mayors’ philanthropic initiatives, facilitating public-private collaborations that support initiatives which respond to the needs of the city’s most disadvantaged communities.

(2)  Give Local

Community organisations need to be better prepared to work with companies’ sense of place at a more local level. In recent years there has been a proliferation of intermediary and brokerage organisations which match private companies with civil society organisations. East London Business Alliance; Heart of the City; City Action and Team London, as well as local models like Business and Community Together in Kensington and Chelsea, Community Southwark or Love Kingston pair companies, including SMEs, with charities, source employee volunteers and introduce business skills to community organisations.

The emergence also of place-based giving initiatives, on the back of the success of Islington Giving, and the growth of Business Improvement Districts (BIDs), provide additional infrastructure and conduits for engaging businesses in civil society locally. And yet there is a strong sense that much of this activity is happening in relative isolation, if not in competition, rather than based on a shared sense of purpose or a common vision for how business can best support London’s civil society.[16]

  • Influencing CSR beyond the FTSE 250 is about getting to SMEs. This requires finding new conduits or points of contact with companies of this size which are committed long-term to particular town centres or neighbourhoods in the capital. Last year Rocket Science and Future of London wrote a report for the GLA/LEP on Business Improvement Districts in the capital of which there are now more than 50 – a quarter of the total in the UK. It argued that BIDs are a potential broker and convenor of business engagement in local communities and in supporting civil society. Some are doing this already (eg Better BanksideBaker Street Quarter Partnership); more could be persuaded or shown how. The GLA has contemplated setting up a BIDs’ Innovation Fund – why not include as one of the fund’s themes an invitation for BID partnerships to support Civil Society Organisations and local infrastructure?

(3) Give Together

On a thematic basis, the Big Lottery Fund, on the back of recent research by Collaborate, is recommending the mapping of London’s funding ecology. This should better equip the funding community in London to align and complement their work, resulting in more effective distribution of funds to meet the needs of Londoners, whilst also providing a way ahead for businesses which are interested in co-investing in a shared agenda.[17]

  • Employer Supported Volunteering – this initiative, a plank in the Conservative Party’s 2015 Manifesto, has had a somewhat stop-start evolution.  http://blogs.ncvo.org.uk/2015/07/10/from-csr-to-hr-the-future-of-employer-supported-volunteering/  For this to work, it needs effective brokers (at the local level) which connect business volunteers to VCSOs (and other manifestations of a civil society). This has to be more than about teams painting community buildings – though that has its place. At a pan London level, there seems an opportunity for an agency like the GLA’s Team London to promote and broker Lawyers for London; Accountants for London; Planners for London etc. – ie connecting the professions to communities where the skills and resources are so needed and where they can be applied for mutual benefit.
  • Social Value Act – potentially this legislation gives statutory sector commissioners greater leverage over business and redefines the parameters for CSR. Instead of companies defining their responsibilities and deciding what they would like to contribute, the public sector can now set the agenda and determine the priorities. The Way Ahead task group which has looked at Consistent Commissioning found examples of commissioners now developing a prospectus or, in the case of the Mayor of Liverpool, a Social Value Charter which is a call to action for business to invest more as partners in the local communities of Liverpool.

According to Robert Watts, the new compiler of the Rich List, HM Revenue and Customs, along with divorce lawyers, estate agents and auction houses take more than a passing interest in the List’s annual publication. Collectively, London’s statutory and independent funders should too.

For more information on The Way Ahead please refer to: http://londonfunders.org.uk/what-we-do/london-funders-projects

[1] The Sunday Times Magazine, Rich List 2017, May 7 2017

[2] https://www.equalitytrust.org.uk/richest-1000-people-have-more-wealth-poorest-40

[3] London’s 2015 Poverty Profile, Trust for London

[4] London Communities Commission

[5] London Fairness Commission 2016 p53.

[6] See: Prosperity and poverty – the challenge of social renewal in difficult times The Chris Patten Lecture, given by Julia Unwin at Newcastle Institute for Social Renewal, 22 November 2016

[7] See, for example, the report of The London Communities Commission: Evidence and Draft Recommendations for Action with the Business Sector, March 2016

[8] Mohan, J. and Breeze. B. (2015) The Logic of Charity: Great Expectations in Hard Times, Macmillan

[9] http://www.londoncouncils.gov.uk/our-key-themes/local-government-finance/local-government-funding-and-expenditure/total-funding

[10] Davies, R. (2016) Public good by private means. Charities Aid Foundation

[11] Bradley, K. (2009) Poverty, Philanthropy and the State: Charities and the Working Classes in London

[12] Pharoah, C. and Walker, C. (2015) ‘More to Give: London Millennials networking towards a Better World’ City Philanthropy

[13] Pharoah, C. and Walker, C. (2015) ‘More to Give: London Millennials working towards a better world’ City Philanthropy

[14] London Fairness Commission (2016)

[15] Figures quoted in the report of The London Communities Commission: Evidence and Draft Recommendations for Action with the Business Sector, March 2016

[16] The Evolution of London’s Business Improvement Districts (2016)

[17] A New Funding Ecology – A Blueprint for Action (2015)


John is the Managing Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check his profile here.

Funders fix your forms! Here’s how

Funders fix your forms! Here’s how

Forms, forms, forms –  a necessary evil in grant-making, but how can we make them less frustrating for applicants and funders?  James Turner gives his advice!

Endless questions. Impossible questions. Pointless questions.  These are the Big Three faults of funding application forms.  I’ve been on both sides of the fence – both designing the forms themselves and trying to fill them in.  I know why the Big Three faults happen and I think I know how they can be fixed, too.

There are, of course, lots of good forms as well as lots of bad forms.  Many funders do think hard about what they are putting people through.  But sometimes maybe they don’t think hard enough and that’s how we end up with…

…Endless questions

If you’ve ever applied for funding for a charity, you probably know the score.  All you want is a few thousand pounds to provide a much needed service.  But the application form to get your hands on this money is 16 pages or 20 pages or 25 pages.  How does this happen?  First, in the long distant past, there probably was a nice, short, snappy form.  But over the years, a succession of assessors, managers and Board members have a succession of bright ideas: questions that simply have to be asked.  And so what was once a snappy form slowly accretes more and more questions until it becomes… Endless.

Solution #1: Funders review your forms.  Once every two years should be often enough.  And ask the simple question: What do we really need to know?

…Impossible questions

There are two types of impossible question.  The first type is questions that are impossible to answer.  Good example: a five year funding application which has a question along the lines of, “How will your project be sustainable beyond the life of the grant?”  To which the honest answer is, “I don’t know, it’s 2022 – I’m hoping to take early retirement by then”.  But you can’t say that, so you are forced to play a game and add in 200 words of plausible sounding stuff.  It doesn’t help you (200 plausible words takes time) and doesn’t help the funder (everybody will write variations on the same plausible themes).

 Solution #2: Same as above – review your forms.  Are there any Keeping-Up-Appearances questions that are only there because you feel they have to be there?And then there are questions which are impossible for funders to judge.  Such as SMART outcomes. I like outcomes.  Asking applicants to describe the difference they are going to make is a good idea.  It’s a way to see if a project has thought about why they want to do what they are proposing. 

 

 But to regiment this thinking into five outcomes of 20 words or fewer and make these outcomes specific and measurable and all the rest is futile.  It’s impossible to judge whether the outcomes are ‘good’ or ‘bad’.  So what gets judged instead is whether the outcome is SMART enough. Whether it’s an ‘outcome’ or an ‘output’.  Whether the syntax, even the verb tense, is correct.  None of this makes an application better or worse.  But this is what gets a heavily weighted assessment.

Solution #3:  Measure the things that lend themselves to measurement: How much funding is being asked for? How much cash or in-kind match-funding is there? How many people will be getting, say, 10+ hours of support?  Funders, in my experience, shy away from this kind of measurement because it feels mechanical and doesn’t involve much assessor judgement.  But mechanical or not, it’s far better than trying to judge something that truly can’t be judged.

Pointless questions…

Bigger funders will often have a grants management system designed to cope with a wide variety of different applications and funding programmes.  And the danger here is that questions get added because they are needed for the management information (MI) reports that the database can produce.

Solution #4: “Because the grants database says so” isn’t a good enough reason to include a question on a form.  Is it a legal requirement? Has the MI collected been used in, say, the last 12 months? If not, I’d ditch the questions.

Finally, there are questions that are, in assessment terms, literally pointless – the answers don’t get a score.  The justification normally goes along the lines of, “Although the question isn’t scored, it helps the assessor get a sense of the application and affects the overall judgement”.  But a completed application form will often be thousands of words.  More than enough to come to a view on an application’s worth without needing more unscored questions.

Solution #5: Check the link between application form questions and the scoring criteria.  If there are mismatches, ditch the questions or fix the scoring criteria.

There you have it: five possible solutions to the Big Three funding form faults.  Don’t think: “Because we’ve always done it that way.”  Think: “How can we make it better?”  Then you might get truly smart application forms.

James is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our North East office.  You can check out his profile here.

Charities – down to the wire

Charities – down to the wire

Small and medium charities are struggling to survive.  In this article, Caroline Masundire reflects on the reasons why and what needs to be done to support them in the future.

Many small and medium sized charities are bearing the brunt of austerity – losing grants and contracts whilst managing increasing demand for their services which are no longer funded. In any other situation you would want to throw in the towel, pack up and go home.

• Decisions to reduce public funding have meant that only those with high needs or tick a box get supported – effectively withdrawing help for swathes of people who still need it, yet are no longer eligible
• This in turn has created a fight for survival and increased competition as organisations cross borders and service boundaries to secure contracts and funding in areas where they may have little experience or knowledge
• So when services get recommissioned through a single contract only those organisations with the balance sheet, resources and approach to risk are fit to apply and/or have the security of TUPE commitments on their side… and it is not just the private sector
• Funders may be reluctant to plug the gap in statutory services, favouring new, innovative solutions to problems which they can pump-prime, yet will be difficult to sustain once their funding ends
• Which in turn creates further competition for limited resources and investment goes to those that can demonstrate ‘my impact is bigger than yours’
• Meanwhile people that need services and support go to the organisation they trust and have built a relationship with, which is no longer funded to help them. Yet it finds a way.

This story is by no means new –this has been happening for years but it is having a compounding effect, not just on the smaller and medium sized VCS but most importantly on the people that need their help. The unintended consequences of service design, commissioning and funding decisions are taking their toll and causing people such additional stress that their mental health suffers.  Navigating public services makes their challenges much greater than they needed to be.

People need to talk to someone when they are in crisis, we are human after all. An online service may help signpost you to services if you know what you are looking for, or give you an email address to get in touch with someone – that is if you have an email address, access to a device or mobile. I wrote last year about Dorothy, an elderly lady who had effectively been neglected by public services and was just about managing to live independently with the support of neighbours.

 

 

It took me nearly an hour negotiating around the ‘computer says no’ culture of the bank to get them to send her a cheque book so she could get money out of her account. The reliance on ‘digital by default’ as the panacea for citizen interaction is ill-judged and poorly thought through.

Equally no amount of ‘nudge theory’ is going to help someone with a learning disability who does not understand that if they do not attend an assessment interview with DWP, they will lose their disability benefit. Even if a letter is sent to them three times – it does not help them understand it any better. They just get sanctioned, lose their benefit, go into crisis and all the arrangements that have taken years to build around their life fall apart.

And if you have multiple needs then be prepared for lots of different assessments in different places by different organisations to access services that are not joined up and compete with each other.

I accept this may not be the experience of everyone, but it is happening to a significant number of people, who, already vulnerable and at risk, are caught in the (muddled) middle.

It is in his muddled middle where the true value of small and medium sized charities comes into play, as they help people to navigate through systems and services, assessments and appointments. Often this work is unpaid, yet critical to wiring public services together, but an activity which is generally hidden and hard to measure.

The Lloyds Bank Foundation, is actively championing small and medium-sized charities and has produced sobering evidence on the impact of funding and commissioning across the country. It makes recommendations around changes to commissioning, flexibility around funding and improved grant-making practice.

However, as statutory funding reduces and competition for grants to plug gaps increases, small and medium sized charities will inevitably face difficult decisions about their future. These decisions are ultimately influenced by the extent to which public agencies, funders and other stakeholders are prepared to change, do things differently and work together. The trouble is change takes time and time is something that we have very little of.

Caroline Masundire

 

Caroline is an Associate Director at Rocket Science based in our London office.  You can check out her profile here.