Funding: what works, and what does not

26 Aug 2022 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 26 Aug 2022

Pic: Unsplash

Charities, by definition, exist to provide a benefit to society. The more effective they are, the greater the benefit.

It follows that if we want to do the most good we have to be as effective as we can be. And in order to chart our progress we need to analyse what has worked, and what has not.

We can then pass on these learnings to others. Logically, over time, if they follow the evidence their performance will improve over time as well. It becomes a virtuous circle.

That’s why delivering a project is never enough, we also need to devote some of our resources to collecting and sharing evidence of best practice. The bigger the project, the more important that is.

And this evidence should never be left to gather dust in an archive it should be the first port of call when considering other projects and their methodology.

The National Lottery Fund is coming to the end of a programme which has seen £25 million invested in work carried out by community and voluntary groups supporting families for a period of five to seven years.

It brought in the gloriously named Centre for Effective Services to help the groups, providing evidence of what is known to work, supporting training, implementation and evaluation.

As a result it has collected a unique body of evidence and experience of the sector’s role in helping vulnerable families. There are also clear lessons both about funding and partnership which make their reports a vital legacy of the work, and essential reading for anyone interested in furthering the public good.

The Reaching out, supporting families programme had three stated objectives. They were:

  • More children and their families will have greater skills, knowledge and understanding to overcome adversity;
  • More children and their families will come together to learn;
  • More children and their families will be part of the community that they live in.

The programme was delivered by a range of groups of different size, organisational capacity  and expertise and families supported faced a wide range of adversities, including poverty and financial pressures; disability and health issues; trauma; stigma, exclusion and discrimination, and isolation. In many instances, families were dealing with more than one of them.

It is also worth making the obvious point. Over this period inequalities were increasing with many more families living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage. The report drily observes: “the community and voluntary sector does not have the power to change systemic inequality in society.”

With that caveat clearly in mind, four key learnings emerge.

The first is around the value of funding for longer terms than heretofor.

Niamh Farren the Centre for Effective Service's Senior Project Specialist said: “Services need secure funding for longer to reasonably be expected to achieve good outcomes and to evaluate what change has been achieved. Short term funding cycles  make it difficult if not impossible to measure outcomes. Families also benefit from a longer term investment in funding. Projects get a longer lead in time to really understand the needs of families. They have time to build relationships with other services that can support families, creating smoother referral pathways and helping them address a wide range of adversities. All of this means a greater likelihood of good outcomes for families.”

This has implications for both public and philanthropic funding. In the case of public funding it suggests that being trapped in the short term by funding one year at a time or, as is the case at the moment, having to manage the uncertainty of not knowing whether some money budgeted will not arrive at all is not just bad for the mental health of civil servants but for clients as well.

It suggests to philanthropists that they may need to enter longer-term commitments where they can, rating effectiveness over innovation as a funding criteria. Funding stuff that works for the long term, rather than constantly having to reinvent the wheel is even more important given public sector uncertainties.

 Second there is partnership working. This was a requirement of all those charities being funded. Projects were delivered by voluntary and community organisations in partnership with statutory services and working together was even more important given the differing needs of clients.

Strong partnerships and collaboration demonstrated benefits for families, such as easier transitions from one service to another. Partners were more aware of appropriate services in the area and what they could offer, had confidence in that service’s quality, and could easily communicate to check on likely waiting lists or referral criteria.  

There was particular synergy where partner organisations were able to acknowledge their differences and respect each other as equal, as experts in different domains. In some instances, voluntary organisations could advocate on behalf of statutory services, improving their perception among service users. Voluntary organisations were able to gain credibility and become more trusted among the statutory sector, opening opportunities for funding and further collaboration. 

 But the report concluded that however important partnership working is: “The overwhelming evidence from the programme and the evidence base is that partnership working does not just happen, but needs to be cultivated, invested in, and led.”

Ms Farren also stressed another message for funders.

She said: “Commission for outcomes, rather than activities. Families who experience adversity need flexibility from services. Flexibility from funders can allow services to support the families they work with, using the methods they find most effective.”

The importance of this came to prominence during the pandemic where all too often activities could not be carried out in the way envisaged when they were tendered for.

But in any event flexibility is an important consideration in commissioning services for families experiencing adversity. Different families have different needs which change and evolve over time. The key to allowing for this and at the same time preventing mission drift is to focus on achieving the outcomes.

Finally there is the importance of remaining committed to prevention and not just intervention.

Ms Farren has this further advice for funders. “Think long term. Even during a crisis its critical to maintain investment in early intervention services. Early intervention can help families by addressing a problem before it escalates. Investment in prevention and early intervention can pose a dilemma for policy makers and commissioners as outcomes may only emerge in the longer term. Over the past few years, community and voluntary services have had to divert scarce resources into supporting families in crisis.”

The findings are a hugely valuable legacy from the project. They are worthy of study and will be of great interest both to the public and voluntary sectors and all those depending upon them for support.


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