Learning from our response to Covid
Three years after the first national lockdown began, it has become commonplace to think in terms of before and after Covid. Whilst the pandemic may no longer be as front of mind as more present concerns such as the cost of living crisis, its long-reaching impacts continue to be felt. In addition to bringing unprecedented challenges in the sectors we work in, Covid has also been a catalyst for change, influencing relationships, governance, systems and processes in many and varied ways.
As a learning organisation, at PHF we actively seek to reflect on our experiences to inform our future practice. This is true during so-called ‘normal times’, let alone during a worldwide pandemic. We have previously reviewed our grant-making during the pandemic, and commissioned the Institute for Voluntary Action Research (IVAR) to consider the perspective of staff and trustees on our work during this time. However, hearing directly from grantees is a particularly powerful way to learn from our grant-making.
The review of PHF’s Covid response we are publishing today seeks to reveal something of the scale of the challenges faced by the organisations we support as well as the difference made by our Covid Response funding and learning for our future approach to emergencies.
PHF’s Covid Response Fund made over 500 UK grants with a total value of over £16.5 million, the majority of which were grants of £20,000 to existing grantees. Over 170 recipients of our Covid grants completed an online survey, which we designed to simplify the usual reporting process. We are sensitive to the inevitable power dynamics involved in surveying grantees, particularly when responses are not anonymous. Nevertheless, the open and trusting relationship with PHF that some respondents describe is to some extent also manifest in the constructive criticism given.
Overall the survey findings were very positive about PHF’s Covid response. From providing direct emergency services to the most vulnerable, to enabling organisations to stay afloat, continue their work and retain their staff, grantholders repeatedly praised the value of these quick and flexible grants, and PHF’s responsive and supportive approach.
“…we had to stop all of our face-to-face delivery, which impacted our income from running training sessions by 75%… The grant has helped cover for this loss and allowed [our organisation] to continue operating in the pandemic.”
“… it was liberating to be able to offer an idea out at a time of crisis and be responded to with such thought and generosity of time. Having conversations about the project was so helpful also to continue to develop the idea in collaboration with PHF and response to the feedback.”
Responses also illustrate how the pandemic both accelerated and gave opportunity for the use of digital technology to change how organisations work and services are delivered, with at times unexpected and potentially long-term impacts.
“[The grant enabled us to] develop innovative new ways for our healthcare volunteers to provide training remotely … The training keeps young people anonymous which has had some unintended benefits, including being able to deliver training to groups of young people who would not be able to attend together in person due to gang affiliation or social anxiety, for instance.”
Reflecting wider trends, respondents highlighted the importance of unrestricted core funding, as well as the need for longer-term funding. Similarly, respondents were clear about the value of flexibility, in terms of how the grant is spent, application processes, monitoring, reporting, outcomes, timescales and deadlines.
“The most useful thing in the last year has been funders being flexible in how we use grants and having trust in us that we will use them to achieve the same impacts but in different ways.”
We are keen to hold onto and build on the positive changes to our practice and relationships driven by the pandemic. These findings are feeding into efforts as PHF seeks to take a more user-centred approach, along with other research such as our grantee and applicant perception surveys conducted by the Center for Effective Philanthropy in 2022.