I was reading recently in Third Sector about a new piece of research looking at how grants help smaller charities to thrive and grow and ‘crowd in’ other sources of funding. For every pound of Lottery grant received, medium-sized charities increased their income on average by £1.60 after four years.
I found this particularly striking as many decision-makers – in good times as well as bad – have been reducing their grant budgets and encouraging the sector to move away from what they call ‘grant dependency’. The whole shift away from grant funding appears to be based on a fundamental misconception that giving and receiving grants is a problem rather than a solution.
As you would expect from someone who has worked for many years in grant making and has recently started as the new chief executive at the Big Lottery Fund, this is a subject close to my heart. At Esmée Fairbairn I experienced a myriad of exceptional people benefiting from grants both from Esmée and other funders. People like the Orchardville Society in Northern Ireland or the African Diaspora women’s charity, Forward.
So I’m going to say something a little unfashionable – I think great grant making has a crucial role to play in enabling the voluntary and community sector to transform people’s lives.
In the first few weeks of my new job, I was delighted to hear that the Big Lottery Fund’s Reaching Communities programme is now offering twice as much in grants as it did five years ago. This is important and is core to what we do.
Of course, it is valuable to help charities to develop skills to diversify their income, and there is a role for new forms of funding such as social investment in helping to achieve this. But these complement rather than replace grant funding. They can be used at different times in the funding cycle and for different purposes.
There are two themes of significant interest to the sector and to policy-makers where great grant making is particularly important:
– Preventing problems, rather than picking up the pieces – Grant funding is a particularly effective way of supporting projects which take a preventative approach, whether that’s one of our Awards for All projects such as the Building Ballysally Together Healthy Eating Cafe in Coleraine, or the great work which Baring Foundation, Trust for London and Comic Relief have been doing to strengthen the social welfare legal advice sector.
The flexibility of long term grant funding makes it particularly well suited to enabling the shift from picking up the pieces once problems have occurred, to high quality early intervention services. Making that long term commitment isn’t always easy for grant funders and often needs courage and an appetite for risk.
– ‘First (or last) brick in the wall’ – Grant funding can be ‘the first brick in the wall’ – enabling voluntary groups and organisations to get started, to try new activities and take risks. It can also serve as the ‘last brick in the wall’, where community groups have been able to raise some but not all of the funding that they need from community share offers, crowd funding, loan finance or other sources. In these situations a small amount of grant funding can have a big impact.
The people working at the grassroots have always known that grant funding is a fantastic way of changing people’s lives for the better. Funders just need to give them the grants and the support to get on with it.