Dawn Austwick

Tackling poverty: how can funders help?

The debate around the nature of poverty in the UK is becoming increasingly polarised.  As Julia Unwin argues in her book, Why Fight Poverty?, and as we’ve seen from the responses to programmes such as Channel 4’s Benefits Street, there is a fierce debate about whether individual behaviour or wider structures are responsible for poverty.  Unsurprisingly, this choice has produced a stalemate which has led many people to conclude that widespread poverty is inevitable.

The reality is biting our communities pretty hard.  Food bank users have reportedly tripled in a year and on average three food banks open every day.  Local authorities are having to make tough spending decisions on services that people depend on.

In her book, Julia makes a powerful and compelling case that current levels of poverty are neither inevitable nor acceptable, and that we need to value people who live in poverty and recognise that ‘they’ are people like ‘us’. We are all ‘us’ – a notion that chimes with an asset-based approach which suggests that  we need to give people in poverty the power both to develop their skills and talents and to tackle the issues that hold them back.

On this theme of tackling need by building on the talents of people and communities, I’ve seen at first hand the sector’s capacity to be imaginative in a recent visit to the Sobar project in Nottingham. This alcohol-free bar and cafe has rejuvenated an unused building in the heart of Nottingham, open to the whole community as well as providing a combination of drug and alcohol recovery services alongside a specialist recruitment service. Rather than simply being ‘treated’, people in recovery are taking the lead in the design and delivery of this service – and the results really impressed me. 

Voluntary organisations and social enterprises across the country have a long and proud record of using grant funding to tackle poverty and empower people, reaching those whose needs and talents are not met by traditional state-run services.  The Matthew Tree project in Bristol, offers a programme of support including counselling, debt and health advice in addition to emergency food; but there are also new models emerging such as the new social supermarket in Goldthorpe in Barnsley, offering people low-cost food and drink.

Funders such as the Big Lottery Fund have a duty to listen to the sector and give them the support to be able to tackle poverty effectively.  This was the theme of a roundtable I recently attended with a number of sector representatives in Nottingham.  We explored how ‘need’ and demand for services is changing, and discussed whether the sector is leading the creation of a new settlement which responds to need and empowers people, or being overwhelmed by rising levels of demand?

Perhaps not surprisingly, I heard a shared experience of steeply increasing demand for services from vulnerable people with increasingly complex multiple needs. There was concern that the sector is struggling to meet the needs of individuals who typically don’t qualify for statutory services, building up potential future demand for services such as health and social care. Attendees felt there was a real lack of understanding of how the VCS can reach people and places in ways that the statutory services struggled to do, and to transform lives at a very human level.

I was impressed with how different organisations have responded to these conditions. Often staff have made real sacrifices to make this possible. However, I was also struck by a general feeling from attendees that the easier savings have already been made, and that generally funds through trading isn’t an option for everyone.

At the end of the session, I posed the question “how can Big Lottery Fund and other funders help?” Responses include maintaining funding opportunities for covering core costs; the need for long-term strategic funding; funding to help the people who fall through the gaps of statutory provision; and helping the sector to tell the story of its impact.

It is clear that the nature of need and poverty is changing. The lessons for funders in supporting the sector to respond in this challenging environment will be one of the questions I want us to explore when we shortly kick off a conversation about our strategic framework to 2021.  It strikes me it will be one of the most important questions we’ll ask.

Dawn Austwick is chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund

8 Responses to “Tackling poverty: how can funders help?”

  1. Chris Hornet

    We’ve spent a lot of time scratching our heads as to why our leaders can’t see the evidence before them – that effective investment in volunteer management leads to more effective volunteering and consequently a whole host of better outcomes for users, the organisation, volunteers and the wider community. And, as we can now see, the problems this failure to invest causes when the money stops flowing.

    We’ve talked a lot about a failure to evidence volunteer manmagement impact, a failure to communicate properly etc. But maybe one of the key problems is actually our leaders. Rob’s article demonstrates that many of our leaders are not ‘leaders’ in the true sense but actually people who’ve demonstrated their excellence in management and thus been promoted to the role of leadership on the basis the terms are interchangeable

    Consequently when times get tough they revert back to what they know they best – managing existing resources ie how to raise more money – rather than showing vision and leadership about how to develop new resources, new ways of working and the new opportunties this can create.

  2. John P Sharp

    John, I could not agree more with your comments. The odd thing about “common sense” is that it is not very common!

    John Sharp
    Sharp Solutions

  3. Eowyn Rohan

    Sadly, organisations are not always led by competent owners. The majority of businesses do not consider training to be significant, do not invest in any form of sponsorship, may not even provide placements for candidates at College/University, and yet still expect the external system to deliver “Ideal Staff”.

    Unless SME’s accept a modicum of risk, ownership and responsibility for training, they only have themselves to blame if, rather than perfecting the trait of Common Sense, their competitive position becomes unsustainable.

  4. James Renton

    Dawn, like you I see this new “conversation” about BLF funding being vital for many communities but I fear that BLF have really already made up its mind. In part the problem starts with the word conversation – BLF is a quango and at least should be subject to rules on a proper public consultation. I attended the last conversation that BLF undertook for its current strategic framework – I felt the whole process was manipulative and resulted in a policy framework “Fresh Thinking” which basically gave BLF carte blanch to do what it wanted.

    Secondly the “strategic programmes” BLF likes to champion already make up 40% of your budget. What characterises BLF strategic programmes is a focus on a target group (chosen by you), in a geographic area (chosen by you – there is no open competition just your stats people deciding which area has the greatest need often based on not readily available formula) and based on local partnerships (usually cobbled together on your terms). Now I know every funder has to make choices but BLF has set new ground in really removing any chance of competition from the process – an open tendered public contract would probably have more diversity in its bidding. The good citizens of Nottingham will not care too much if that about merits of long-term strategic funding if a) they are not one of the chosen few; b) if the Reaching Communities and Awards for All programmes are raided so that the limited funding they are currently getting further diminishes; c) that BLF is being pressurised into putting more funding into “Troubled Families” agenda because central government can not find any more cash for a pet project (you would think after the success of The Big Society Network you would see this one coming)! So lets start a proper consultation on the future of funding.

  5. Big Lottery Fund

    Hi James
    Thanks for taking time to comment on my blog.

    Like you I see this piece of work on the strategic framework as vital. We’re calling it a ‘conversation’ because I want it to be two way, more of a dialogue than simply a tick box exercise and I can assure you it will be meaningful and that I am already listening.

    When I joined the Fund just a few months ago, I prioritised meeting voluntary and community sector organisations across the UK to get a better sense of the issues that they were grappling with in their day to day work. Those conversations have been invaluable in informing the basis of this consultation/conversation.

    I realise you also commented on a previous posting of mine as well. Given your interest it would be great to talk with you further and maybe get some examples of great consultations that you have experienced. You can set up a time to meet or call by dropping me an email dawn.austwick@biglotteryfund.org.uk
    It is true that a focus of some of our funding in England has been on some specific strategic investments. This has been where we have been able to fund longer term partnerships (8-10 years), led by the voluntary and community sector, on some key areas of work that meet our mission of supporting people and communities most in need. You are right – not everyone will benefit from this funding in the short term. But, as well as channelling funding into areas of the country with high levels of need, our aim is that this will also generate valuable long term learning about how to more effectively help different groups of people – wherever they may be. This is learning to be shared, both across our portfolios and also with others.
    So whilst I don’t agree with all your analysis, particularly in relation to pressure from Government, you do raise a very valid question, and one that will be key in this consultation. What should our funding mix look like? I wrote a blog for Third Sector that touched on this issue. My own view is that blended funding (a mixture of demand-led and programmatic) is the best use of our funds. As a National Lottery funder, we are in a fortunate position to have around £650m to make available to community projects across the country every year. How we use that is richly informed by our listening to those in the sector – I hope we can catch up soon to continue this discussion.


    • James Renton


      Thank you for the reply and will certainly be in touch. I have no problem with the aspiration that BLF have but I think – and its only an opinion – there is a fatal flaw with the strategic programmes insofar as trying to work out what the policy context of intervention will be in 8-10 years is impossible. You could lots of good practice effectively ignored because it does not get with “accepted” practice in the future.The example in my previous post for you was the older people programme in 8 yrs time the thrust will be even far more on the individual,I do not think £50m for the Centre for Ageing Better is the best way forward. While I see the role of strategic schemes i.e. we all need to aspire to change things for the better. The reality is that funding for a wide range of projects from a wider range of organisations is probably the best option – this will probably set the teeth of your researchers and policy wonks on edge..

  6. Mark Atkinson

    I think funders should take a good look at the fantastic example being set by LankellyChase with its new open grants programme that opens the door to applicants to submit creative approaches to pilot initiatives that seek to address the root causes of issues within their specific areas of interest.

    In other words, move away from the sticky plaster approach. By all means keep your areas of interest… but be less prescriptive about how an investment is put to use.


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