After several years of a tough climate for the voluntary sector, most of us would agree that for small to medium-sized organisations, managing change is one of the main and most important challenges.
Achieving change is difficult – and often unpalatable for chief executives who have built groups of committed people delivering vital services – but the pressures of the environment mean that for most, business as usual is not an option.
Many grant-makers are already putting substantial investment into capacity or capability building. It’s hard to assess the overall expenditure on this type of development support, but the wide and varied range of activities must run into many millions of pounds each year. To help meet the challenges of the current environment, we need to invest more, but not necessarily more money. Alongside capacity building and ‘grants plus’, its time for those of us who set out to fund, support and enable frontline organisations to use all our assets: we need to use everything we’ve got to help the organisations we support develop the skills they need to survive and thrive.
What ingredients do we have?
Each trust or foundation expends resources collecting information on the organisations it supports, but maybe more could be done to make this information a strategic resource. Structuring and sharing this data would enable us to map areas where skills are strong or weak, and identify common problems, trends in demand for types of support, and how it could best be offered and targeted. Moves towards sharing information more routinely are already under way with initiatives like 360Giving. (Our latest report on skills issues in the sector is on our website.)
Alongside information resources, staff teams in funders have a wide variety of strong management skills – from the excellent finance skills needed to manage endowments and grant programmes to the external focus and strategic thinking that help funders to target their support. In short, grant-makers know what good management looks like – and perhaps more could be done to share that understanding with grantees.
A good example is financial management: frontline organisations often hire a book-keeper early on, but the level of financial reporting and management information generated doesn’t always move forward with growth and increasing complexity of operations. Helping organisations to see good examples of financial information, and providing templates or sample reports – perhaps based on grantmakers’ own reporting – could be very helpful.
Using our knowledge can help to show frontline organisations that some skills gaps or management problems are widespread and that developing new skills is an ongoing challenge for everyone. For external support to be really successful, organisations need to be ‘hungry’ – to have an appetite for working with external advisers, rather than seeing capacity building support as force-feeding or somehow implied criticism.
Menu of support
How funders decide what sort of ‘grants plus’ to offer or what kind of capacity building to invest in will be determined by a range of factors – the number of organisations supported, the type of funding offered (projectbased, short- or longer-term), and the funder’s focus – supporting particular fields of work or operating as a more general funder. These factors may guide decisions to invest in highly responsive, bespoke support (as we offer at Cranfield Trust), or more standardised capacity building activities (perhaps training days rather than individual support). It may be that particular skills are highlighted, such as building financial capability, or focusing on evaluation and impact.
The application process can be sweet or sour – creating real value for organisations applying for funding or a gruelling process for overstretched managers. For example, it’s evident that the funding environment of the past 15 years has not helped to develop strong forecasting skills. Too often organisations are only asked for basic budget forecasts, and so don’t learn to prepare cashflows and scenario plans that would help them to make timely decisions and prepare for change. By requesting a cashflow forecast, funders can gain better insight into an organisation’s finances, and simultaneously stimulate its management to develop that key skill.
Depth of engagement can also help – where there is considerable contact with organisations during the application process, there is an opportunity to understand their strengths and weaknesses, to signpost them to particular sources of support, and to help strengthen their networks through introductions and new contacts. Building relationships and trust in this way is, of course, not appropriate to high-volume grant-makers where contact is necessarily limited, but there are still opportunities to ask questions and request information that builds skills, and to feed back information and sector knowledge that provides context to grant applicants.
In helping the frontline organisations that deliver our vital services through a challenging time, we can use all our assets to provide valuable experiences and development alongside grant funding. In addition to the £1.7 billion that foundations provide every year, there’s great value to explore in information, our own management skills and our engagement processes.