On 11th March Tudor’s trustees came into the office for our monthly grants meetings and a full Board meeting. A week later we were working from home, closing our office just before the lockdown on 23rd March.
With minimal experience of remote working, our first concern was getting the team set up so that we could continue to support the organisations we work with – with a particular focus on getting payments out to our grant holders! New systems and workarounds were introduced at speed and trustees began to meet weekly to help support the staff team’s immediate response. We started to get used to Zoom and Slack, but missed the face-to-face conversations that we took for granted only a few weeks before, our morning tea breaks and lunchtime chats…
We signed up to London Funders’ covid-19 funder statement, promising to be as flexible as possible around grant use and reporting requirements, reinforcing our already pretty flexible approach. Grants managers focused on contacting as many of their grant holders as possible, just checking in and offering time for a conversation if that would be helpful.
We heard from many grant holders that they were rapidly adapting their services to support their community, and talked with them about what they needed to be able to do this: from funds to buy food parcels and phone credit to home working kit. We decided to concentrate our direct emergency response on our existing grant holders: as a national funder we didn’t feel that we had the established relationships and local networks to provide rapid emergency support to groups we weren’t already connected to. However our trustees were still keen to contribute to the wider emergency response and agreed a grant of £500,000 to the National Emergencies Trust on 25th March.
Getting the balance right
From the start Tudor’s trustees felt that it was important to maintain a horizon beyond the immediate emergency response, to provide some level of consistency and reassurance to groups as they tried to adapt and rebuild for a very different future. This was reinforced by what we were hearing from many of our partners, who were concerned about a loss of current and future funding from events, public donations and trading income.
Our main challenge was to shape a response which struck the right balance between providing flexible support to our current grant holders and staying open to new applications. We worked across two fronts: flexing (and sometimes increasing or extending) our current grants and making small immediate support grants to grant holders meeting urgent need in their communities while also assessing new applications and making new grants through regular committee meetings. In the first three months of the year we made 110 immediate support and ‘flex’ grants and 103 ‘regular’ grants, many of the latter over two or three years.
What has changed?
To support this dual focus the trustees agreed a 25% uplift to the budget they’d discussed at their Board meeting in March (how long ago that seems!). Delivering these two strands of work also placed heavy demands on the staff team, so we made quick adjustments to the way we work, using our principles around investing in relationships, listening and trust as a touchstone.
We’ve streamlined the initial assessment process and introduced greater trustee involvement during grant assessment and development (including trustees taking part in Zoom assessment calls). Other changes include lightening due diligence, less reliance on detailed paperwork and budgets for future plans, a more exploratory and less inquisitorial approach at grants meetings, and quicker decision making: initially trustees were meeting weekly though we recently dropped back to fortnightly. Decisions around small immediate support grants were delegated to grants managers: these grants, and most of the flex grants, were made on the basis of a conversation, not an application.
We’re continuing to listen to our grant holders and are also tapping into many other live and crucial conversations – around the disproportionate impact of covid-19 on BAME communities and the existential challenge facing groups supporting these communities; the anxiety felt by charity leaders and trustees as they navigate a very uncertain future; and the developing and sometimes challenging thinking about what communities want to keep and build on from these times as they move forward, and what may have to be left behind.
We have been so impressed, though not surprised, by the tenacity, commitment and ability to shift and adapt demonstrated by the hundreds of groups we support, and by the wider voluntary and community sector. We’ve made changes to the way we work because we wanted to provide better support to the sector. We have learnt a lot and over the next few months we’ll assess what has been effective, what we want to consolidate and retain, and what else we need to do differently.
For example, we need to work on how best to direct more of our resources to support work led by the Black community and by people of colour; how we can be more accountable to our applicants and grant holders and how we can be a true ‘core funder’ by making more unrestricted grants, where this is possible, to support groups through the uncertainty of the coming months.
We’re also pleased to be part of IVAR’s learning review, looking at how simplified funding can be sustained beyond the immediate covid-19 crisis. It’s important that we avoid slipping back into our old and perhaps comfortable way of working, and focus on making our funding practices fit for purpose in these unstable times.
This article was written by Nicky Lappin, Head of Research and Information, The Tudor Trust