Grantmaking and Civil Society in the Age of Coronavirus

Wednesday 29th July 2020 by John Griffiths
nine people all holding a jigsaw piece

It was President Obama’s former Chief of Staff, Rahm Emmanuel, who said, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste. And what I mean by that is an opportunity to do things that you think you could not do before.”  We cannot downplay the devastating impact of coronavirus on local communities. However, as we begin to transition from the emergency response to the pandemic and plan society’s long-term recovery, there does appear to be a window of opportunity to define a new form of social contract and radically rethink relationships between government and civil society.

Adversity is Breeding Ingenuity

Rocket Science has worked with several local authorities to review and advise on their relationship with their local VCS, including Camden, Harrow and, currently, RB Kensington and Chelsea and Hounslow.  Our work with Hounslow Council involved a wide-ranging review of its partnership with the local Voluntary and Community Sector which underpinned the subsequent Thriving Communities Strategy, 2019-23. The Council now sees the post-COVID Recovery as an opportunity to accelerate, if not extend, the Strategy’s ambition to change the authority’s relationship with the local community and put local voluntary and community organisations at the heart of its decision making and service delivery, working alongside local businesses, social enterprises, individual residents and partners.

We have recently worked with King’s College London as an evaluation partner for the pilot year of their Civic Challenge. The Challenge brought together teams of students, staff and local charities to work together to co-create solutions to some of the challenges faced by communities in Southwark, Lambeth and Westminster. Teams have competed for six awards of £5,000 to implement their designed initiatives.   

Post COVID – what constitutes Civil Society in the 2020s?

The scope of a post-COVID civil society might be gleaned from the Prime Minister’s recent request of Danny Kruger MP.  Before his recent election to Parliament, Kruger was an adviser to No.10 where he was instrumental in drafting the government’s wide-ranging Civil Society Strategy Building a Future that Works for Everyone. This argued that a modern civil society has five foundations – people, places, the social sector, public sector and business.  Kruger has now been asked to report by the end of July on proposals for a “better system for supporting our communities: more local, more entrepreneurial and more trusting.”

Rocket Science has worked with several independent funders who have been keen to review their role and remit.  Both Wimbledon Foundation and the Westminster Foundation have recently refocused their strategic objectives and funding priorities following a process of consultation and benchmarking. 

The importance of place

The growing interest in place-based giving is in part a reflection of the direction of public policy over the last two decades, which has seen successive governments committed to devolving power to the nations, regions and communities of the UK, recognising that in the words of the Civil Society Strategy “people best placed to drive forward local and sustainable economies are those who live, work and do business in them.”  Rocket Science is working alongside the growing number of Place-based giving schemes in London. Pre-Covid they were tapping into a popular urge to re-establish feelings of community in an increasingly fractured society; they could now be further boosted by the long-term effects of lockdown as people commute less and 

give more as a way of reaffirming that sense of place and belonging. 13 active schemes have provided much-needed support to places during the pandemic, from United in Hammersmith and Fulham’s dissemination of micro-grants to local organisations; the Kensington and Chelsea Foundation’s match-giving approach to fundraising, to Haringey Giving’s collaboration with local SMEs, and Camden Giving’s participatory grant-making.

We have also been working with the Young Westminster Foundation and with oneRichmond (a partnership between Richmond Parish Lands Charity and Hampton Fund) to conduct youth needs analyses in the City of Westminster and in the LB of Richmond respectively. These have involved consultations with a wide range of youth practitioners, alongside the recruitment and training of young peer researchers.  Peer-led research has enabled young people comfortably to explore issues such as mental health, physical health, crime and access to education or training and identify suitable support and services in these two seemingly affluent places.  We are currently working with both partners to update our findings given the added pressures created by Covid-19.

L&Q Foundation have been aware how smaller charities have been impacted by Covid-19 and have sought to ensure that funding remains available where it is needed. As the managers of the Foundation’s Placemakers Fund, Rocket Science have worked with L&Q to relax criteria around funding eligibility to allow smaller charities to apply for more. The priorities of the Fund have also  encompassed new areas of support which have become even more vital since Covid-19, such as supporting those suffering domestic abuse.  We have cut the time taken to process grant applications in half to enable grantees to respond more quickly to the challenges facing their clients.

The role and responsibility of business in civil society’s recovery

If business is one of the five foundations of a modern civil society what should we expect it to contribute to the recovery? Our work in assessing the local impact of Covid-19 on jobs and businesses at MSOA level is showing correlations of high risk both to businesses and communities, particularly in places which are reliant on micro-businesses. We have also seen that services to support businesses and people are less likely to be accessible, highlighting gaps as well as opportunities for a hyper-local response to bring communities together in the recovery process. Covid recovery represents a moment to work more intelligently with local employers, using the levers of government, like the Good Work Standard, to reframe our asks of business such as local job guarantees, or community pay-back schemes in the form of place-based giving of time or resources once businesses are back on their feet. 

For further information on Rocket Science’s grant-making services please contact: or to discuss our work with civil society organisations:

John Griffiths is a Director of Rocket Science UK Ltd and a Trustee of London Funders, a membership network for funders and investors in London’s civil society.