Helping the voluntary sector to stand strong

Published: 28 February 2023 
Author: Holly Donagh 
A young dancer is posed against a turquoise background. She is wearing a loose brown shirt, with sleeves rolled up, and has her hands raised out to her side
One Dance UK. Photo credit: Dani Bower

Holly Donagh, Director of Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence, discusses the vital role infrastructure organisations play in strengthening the sectors in which we work, and their potential to drive diversity, equity and inclusion.

We first launched the Backbone Fund in 2017 as a pragmatic way to support infrastructure organisations which did not fit easily into our other funding routes, but were (and are) vital to the overall health of the voluntary sector. Since then we have supported 50 organisations (including the 2022 awards*) all working in different ways to support, advocate, convene and amplify the important work of the voluntary sector.

In 2022 we commissioned Nexus Evaluation Ltd to evaluate the Backbone Fund, which has been a great opportunity to connect with some of the organisations we have been funding (at a particularly complex and challenging time, post-pandemic and into the cost-of-living crisis) and think about what our contribution to support in this area could look like in the future.

We have made around five or six awards each year through the Backbone Fund. The grants are for five years and contribute towards core costs. The evaluation showed that the organisations place a high value on receiving this kind of long-term funding which has no specific strings attached. It has helped them invest in their own resilience (which proved crucial through Covid) as well as helping them build new coalitions and lean-in to the strong advocacy role many of them play.

The evaluation has confirmed the value of the Fund and we are committed to continuing support for the foreseeable future.

The evaluation also shone a light on some of the challenges for funders. The Backbone Fund has been operating by invite only’ rather than being open to all applications, so it relies heavily on PHF knowledge and networks – how does this square with our ambition to put equity at the heart of what we do? Our view is that opening the Fund to applications may not make it fairer’ as it may only benefit organisations with strong fundraising capacity and we are not currently able to increase the number of grants – but the challenge remains, and we will be thinking about how to shift our practice without creating new burdens for applicants or raising expectations we can’t meet.

The report also focuses on the hugely important role of infrastructure organisations in pushing the sector as a whole to be more diverse, more led by equity and more inclusive.

This needs to be both about the practices of existing organisations but also opening-up the possibility that new organisations need to be formed and others may need to either change or close. These questions go beyond our fund, but how we pay attention to this is crucial.

We are pleased to continue funding in this space and we really urge other funders to do the same – there is the potential for more coordination across funders to lessen the burden on organisations. There is some evidence and expectation that infrastructure organisations are vulnerable to shifts in funding behaviour, in part because they may not be perceived to be front-line’ particularly in times of extra financial stress. We believe this part of the sector is crucial to the overall health of the voluntary sector, which in turn is going to be crucial to how we meet the shifting challenges ahead. Investing creatively across multiple funders could be an extremely fruitful way forward.

We’d love to hear from funders and infrastructure organisations – how else could we collaborate more effectively? What further support could we offer? Add your views on our Twitter thread

*The award to the Cultural Learning Alliance is contingent on a fiscal host being agreed.

Holly Donagh
Director, Strategic Learning, Insight and Influence