What a difference a season makes

Published: 28 May 2020 
Author: Moira Sinclair OBE 
Graphic on a window of an NHS nurse in bright green scrubs and wearing a blue face mask with the Superman logo.
Hope Window created by The Warren, based on original artwork by FAKE. Photo credit: The Warren Youth Project

It’s now ten weeks since we closed the office and moved our staff and operations to home working. Spring 2020 has passed in a flurry of policy variations and Zoom meetings, and now feels like a good moment to reflect.

We have seen extraordinary community mobilisation; an explosion of music, art, poetry, storytelling; and phenomenal collaborations. Our public services have demonstrated their value and ability to flex, and there has been a sudden acceleration in the use of digital technology. The air is cleaner, and local is more valued.

But COVID-19 has also exposed existing inequalities in our society vividly and urgently, and it has created new ones. The impact has not been the same for everyone. Education has been suspended for young people. Their employment options look bleaker now than they did a few months ago, and the attainment gap between those economically better off and their less well-off peers will grow. The systemic link between health and poverty cannot be ignored, nor can the under-investment in the care of older people. The intersections between gender, race and disability that exacerbate injustice are clearer too.

The world has been full of ambiguity and complexity, and we have learnt an enormous amount – about us and how we work, and about the charitable and voluntary sector and the role they play.

Grant making in a crisis

We announced our package of emergency support on 6 April, which included a commitment to be flexible with those who needed to repurpose their grants, and the creation of a £20 million Emergency Fund.

To date, in a significant team effort, we have spoken to the majority of our grantees both in the UK and in India. We have formally adjusted over 100 grants and committed just over £7 million in additional grants to over 250 organisations, partnerships and individuals. I would be lying if I said this was easy – just in terms of the number of transactions alone, it has placed a strain on our operational capacity – but it has been a privilege to work alongside the team at Paul Hamlyn Foundation and, in turn, we have been motivated by the powerful stories we are hearing and the work we are seeing.

The majority of these emergency grants have enabled organisations we fund to respond to immediate need from the communities they support. This has been particularly important for those organisations where vulnerabilities and inequality have been further exposed by the crisis, for example those working with young people, with those already experiencing poverty and with migrant and refugee communities. Whether through food parcels, providing tech to enable people to stay in touch, or maintaining advocacy for legal access and rights, these organisations have been extraordinary in reaching out and responding.

Many charities have been equally impressive in adapting their services at pace to facilitate digital delivery, requiring investment in laptops, phones and IT systems, whilst others have been developing and setting up new systems to allow them to meet demand. For others, particularly those reliant on earned income, grants have helped to maintain cashflow and fund key salaries, working on community and education projects in particular.

Openness is an important principle for us in all our dealings, and we are publishing the data on the 360Giving COVID-19 grants tracker, alongside many others, to be transparent now and to support learning in the future about how the philanthropic sector has responded.

The process for making these grants has been light touch and quick, possible because we have chosen to respond in this phase to organisations with whom we have relationships and sectors where we have expertise and good networks. Grant making is never an exact science and it has not been easy to turn down many worthwhile approaches, but given we are (even at our scale) a very small part of a much bigger funding ecology, it would have been irresponsible of us not to make choices. We could see how necessary a quick yes (or no) was to organisations having to make decisions at pace.

We have also been busy establishing new partnerships and pooled funds. As well as early contributions to the National Emergencies Trust and the London Community Response, we have made grants, for example, to the Community Justice Fund, which is helping specialist social welfare legal advice organisations to cope with the immediate impact of the pandemic, and to the Educational Endowment Fund to underpin measures to address the expected gap in attainment that results from children being out of school for such a long period.

The needs have been diverse, but it has been abundantly clear that charities across the country need support more than ever to ensure they, in turn, support communities in need.

An image of 3 young women's hands as they work together at a table. They're holding calculators and there are books and post-its spread across the table.

Working out what’s next

As lockdown conditions begin to ease, some organisations are considering how they begin to return to work and map out what recovery’ will mean for them. For others, the true impact of the crisis is just beginning, and they face a much longer road ahead, with months of uncertainty.

As a recent IVAR report noted, we need to understand the importance of joined-up thinking between emergency funding and other funding streams. The unforeseen consequence otherwise could be a damaging hiatus, just at the exact moment when clarity and steadfastness from funders is needed most

350 funders signed a pledge back in March, stating that we stand with the voluntary sector and are listening, and we need to make sure we build this, not just in the midst of the storm, but for the future. We will continue conversations to understand what is needed and when. And we will meet with our trustees at the end of June to share what we have learnt and to make recommendations about what we might need to do differently as a result, ahead of our re-opening our funds for application from early autumn.

I do not expect our programmatic focus to change, if anything the past three months have confirmed how much work there is to do. Recent work to refresh our overarching strategy feels more relevant than ever, so our intention will be to publish that at the same time that we re-open. And we have already reaffirmed our intention to maintain our existing budget allocations as well as the emergency funding we have available.

But this won’t feel like a return to business as usual’ – the implications for all the sectors we support are likely to be long-lasting; their needs and the needs of the communities that they serve will vary and evolve over time. Issues such as mental health and underemployment may become more pertinent than ever before, and we need to think how we shift to ensure we can be as useful and effective a funder as we can be in the coming years.

Our vision is for a just and equal society, in which everyone, especially young people, can realise their potential and enjoy fulfilling and creative lives. Collectively we have a lot of work to do – we will continue to share reflections as we get that work underway.

Moira Sinclair
Chief Executive