Dawn Austwick

Immediate need or early action?

Since becoming chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund, I have inherited a lot of goodwill and a lot of advice on where the organisation should lead, where it should follow and where it should keep out.

The advent of the government’s Triennial Review of the Big Lottery Fund was therefore a timely piece of work and we are looking forward to hearing their views on us in due course. 

I’ve also been proactively seeking the views of charities and grass-roots organisations across the country myself. Recently, I met groups in Leeds who are grappling with some of the issues that I am sure keep many charities leaders and their staff awake at night.

One of the key points we discussed was how it is possible to tackle the immediate and growing needs facing people in these tough times, while preventing problems for the future.

As I mentioned in my last blog, I think there is an important role for grant funding to support the shift to early action where appropriate, so I was keen to hear from the people at the grass roots about how they turn rhetoric into reality.

Three points struck me during this discussion in Leeds on early action:

– First, we shouldn’t think in terms of either preventing problems or meeting immediate needs. It is vital that the resources are made available to do both. (I’ll return Karl Wilding’s compliment in his blog on grant-making because he echoes my thinking here on a funding mix.)

– Second, there was universal agreement that we are seeing a significant realignment of the relationship between public services, the VCS and the private sector. The VCS has a great deal to offer in terms of grass-roots outreach, understanding the needs of local people and building trust. But there was also an acceptance at the round table that the VCS had not always been great at either partnership working or measuring and articulating its impact. Perhaps our funding can help the sector make more of these things.

– Third, there was a call to action for funders to not only catalyse innovative thinking, share best practice and build learning and an evidence base. There is an appetite for greater use of early action and preventive practice, but it is unlikely to reach a critical mass if funders are not willing to take risks and help prove the model.

We have been privileged to work with David Robinson and the Early Action Task Force and a group of funders over the past year, exploring how we might, as individual funders and collectively, push this debate further into the realms of practice. There will always be the need for acute help, sometimes funded by the state, sometimes by the VCS, but if we can invest in changing some of the goal posts so that the level of acute need reduces over time, not only will demand for funding reduce but, more importantly, more of us will be able to lead ‘good lives’ in vibrant communities.

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