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Relief Fund 2021: What have we learned?

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The only way to get a thing done is to start to do it, then keep on doing it, and finally you'll finish it

Langston Hughes, The Big Sea

Last week our Learning & Participation Manager Cameron went through the how and what of our recent Relief Fund, which saw £30,000 distributed to community organisations in need.

In this blog, they will explain what learning BD Giving is taking from the process and what that means for our work going forward.

Running the fund has given us more insight into how long it takes us to run a participatory decision-making process, and how much participation costs us.

While the board were keen to meet the needs of the community, the decision-makers felt they needed more time – only a week or so – to really grapple with what was being asked of them. 

Before the process, Geraud and I discussed that we didn’t want this fund to undo what we’ve achieved over the last year. Even though we wanted to get money out quickly, we still wanted to use a participatory process. 

There’s an idea floating around that participatory grant making processes take a long time but in our limited experience that’s not been the case. Even if we’d taken another week to send out decisions, it would have been weeks quicker than traditional funders of a similar size.

I would like to see the borough develop and become better for all generations. It’s important to be involved in that and have your say. I believe in kindness and everything positive to make things better – even a small voice matters

Relief Fund Decision-Maker

The feeling from the decision-makers was that they understood why we had split the group in half but that they would have preferred that not to have been the case – had resources not been an issue, we might have found a way to make it work with everyone seeing all the applications. We’d budgeted roughly £1,000 for the decision-makers (assuming they each did an average of 10-12 hours at £10.85ph) and the numbers came back within this budget.

As with the Rapid Response Fund, we encouraged decision-makers to ask questions if there was any confusion around spelling or grammar rather than holding it against the application. None of the decision-makers felt that spelling or grammar was an issue and said that where applications fell short it was usually because they didn’t explain things fully. 

We’ve been greatly encouraged by two rounds of funding where community members have demonstrated that they are approaching applications with this open mind, though we can do more to support them in these decisions.

What's Next?

As a small organisation, we are limited by our capacity but we still think there are substantive changes we can make to ensure our work is as participatory as possible. To us, this looks like:

Offering support to applicants

Participatory grant making (PGM) is not like traditional funding routes so having a lot of experience writing successful applications doesn’t necessarily translate to a community-led process.

Just like we inducted the decision-makers, we will run a workshop and/or produce resources to support applicants – we don’t want this to make the process more onerous and replicate the elements of funding that people dislike but, as a funder, we want our decision-makers to be faced with a consistent standard. We think it is incumbent on us to make it happen.

Our decision-makers said that they didn’t want to feel patronised or manipulated – one said that they thought one application was well-written and demonstrated a high-level of need but that ‘they could have been writing about anywhere’. When your decision-makers live in the same neighbourhood as you, it’s important that they feel connected to what you’re saying.

Increased support for decision-makers

The reverse side of this is that we want to be able to give decision-makers the tools and information they need to feel connected, especially to new or smaller organisations.

To us, this means being able to paint them a picture of the borough that shows the relationships that exist between organisations and the current funding landscape. In this way, they can better understand the likely impact of any decision and feel more confident in them.

We also want to look at how we encourage people to examine how their biases might be impacting their decisions – this might be a bias towards organisations that they are familiar with or who they perceive as having a good track record. 

We can only do funding differently if we actually do something different!

I feel strongly about having a good structure for everyone to contribute to the environment they live in – this process is a way of hearing all those voices and finding a balance.

It’s very important to build a culture where it’s safe to help others. [BD Giving] has done a great job, I found the process really straightforward and easy to do all of it.

Relief Fund Decision-Maker
Asking decision-makers how they want to create connections

While the group reported feeling more connected than our previous decision-makers, the process still didn’t meet their expectations.

Everyone involved really liked the Consider.it tool for making decisions, the most commonly cited benefit was that the decision wasn’t presented as a binary one so they could convey their feelings in a more nuanced way.

Where it fell short was as a tool for dialogue – not everyone felt able to use the comment feature and it didn’t really lend itself to discussion.

Decision-makers liked that the process was remote and flexible but wanted to see us test out ways we could facilitate conversations between them – suggestions included a discussion meeting before opening up the decision platform or a WhatsApp/Telegram group for discussion.

Continuing to bring the community into more parts of the process

As mentioned at the start, the trustees made the decision to set-up this fund and Geraud and I made many decisions about its implementation, with the community coming in at the last stage of that process to make the final decisions. Even with the Rapid Response Fund, where people helped shaped the design of the fund, there was still a lot of it where the organisation made decisions about how to progress 

We will continue to explore ways to draw upon the community when it comes to important decisions around funding, this is especially crucial as we develop the Local Fund and Community Endowment Fund.

At the end of the day, the trustees have the legal responsibility for managing the charity (especially its finances) so we will always need to balance this with taking an innovative, community-led approach to funding.

Final Thoughts

About BD Giving

If 2020 was a year of rapid response, 2021 is the year we reconsider our response and take a careful look at what we need to do to make sure our funding doesn’t just continue a cycle of frustration.

As outlined in our report on our endowment fund we want to take the time to work with the community and invest in additional resources that they need to make decisions to deliver the Barking and Dagenham they want to see. 

We also know that we need to think carefully about our role as a funder. While we don’t want to unduly influence the decision-making process, it’s clear that we have a responsibility to clear a space for people to explore new ways of thinking and to support them to test out new ideas and organisations.

One of the things we noticed about the successful applicants is that it skewed more towards the arts and cultural sector, compared with the applicant pool as whole – for us, this is something that we should examine more closely as while it may be reflecting a genuine need in the community, it’s worth us considering how we might encourage people to consider funding less visible work in the borough.

About Participatory Grant Making

One of the opportunities that PGM offers is the ability to have a process that is as dynamic and responsive as the communities a fund exists to support. If this aspect of PGM is embraced, then it means that there really isn’t ‘one neat trick’ to applying for such a fund – it’s hard for me to imagine a future where someone could make a living as a bid writer for PGM processes (though I’d love to hear a counter-argument!). 

There is then an understandable anxiety around foundations and trusts moving away from traditional grant making. I don’t think PGM will ever wholly replace that funding stream but the sector needs to think about the impact PGM will have on workers who have built a career around it and charities that have developed a rhythm around particular funding cycles.

With our Local Fund and Community Endowment Fund in development, it was great for us to take the opportunity to test out a new iteration of our participatory way of working. 

It continues to be the case that there is an appetite for our way of working in Barking and Dagenham and we’re excited to see where our journey with the community takes us.

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