This week I started my new role at the Big Lottery Fund and thought it a good time to write up the first enquiry I conducted about what being a good funder looks like.

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I posted a short survey a few weeks ago asking the question:

  1. What is the one quality you most want to experience in a funder? (I gave people a choice of integrity, empathy, directness, transparency, honesty, fairness & other)
  2. Taking the one characteristic you chose in the last question, how do you know you are experiencing that? e.g. what does fairness feel like? how would the funder be behaving?
  3. Please describe your best experience with a funder.

42 people took part and you can see the results of question 1 below.

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There is overlap in what each of these mean to people and I did intentionally design it so that people could only choose one. I wanted to understand which people would give more priority to over everything else, as there are undoubtedly trade-offs that have to be made.

I’ve tried to pull together the key ways in which people described each characteristic — how they knew there was transparency, or how it felt if someone was being fair — and have used a quote from the survey in each example.

“Transparency looks like making the data available, being open about the process (& reality), using clear language, ensuring it’s accessible, and being honest about mistakes (& in feedback).”

Clarity is important in creating a sense of transparency. From clearly articulated criteria through to being clear about decisions. People want comprehensive descriptions of scoring and weighting criteria and to understand how decisions were made.

This could include publishing reflections on how criteria were applied after funding allocation rounds and the approach funders used (how many people read what, why were these the right people to make the decisions, how did they peer review things etc.)

Easy access to information when people need it — “transparency means that when I try to find out useful info about the funder or process I can do so easily.”

If a funder was publishing their data on 360 Giving, that was a good start to doing transparency well.

“You can engage with them like they are a peer and colleague — tell them what’s going well but also where you need help and challenges you’re facing. This leads to a more honest relationship with hopefully no nasty surprises when it comes to having to submit proposals, reports or take difficult decisions.”

Integrity is shown through funders recognising their power and responsibility. Alongside being open about how they makes decisions and why, a funder with integrity shares as they learn and talks about their mistakes as openly as their successes. but also share as they learn — successes as well as mistakes.

It’s refreshing and shows integrity when a funder admits there’s ambiguity or uncertainty in knowing what to do and invest in — they shouldn’t pretend they know everything.

A sense of integrity is also created through consistency in behaviour, language, feedback — people doing what they say they will.

“Just tell me exactly why you haven’t funded my project in plain English.”

Directness looks like both being concise in what you ask of people when they’re applying for grants (so only asking for really necessary information, not duplicating anything that may have been asked for before, ensuring this is all designed well) and telling people exactly why they haven’t been successful.

“They speak to you as a human, help you interpret the ‘transparent’ guidelines and tell you if they think a project will pass instead of hiding behind ‘polite’ regurgitation of the guidelines or inane non-specific responses.”

Honesty is evident when funders are clear about what they are looking for (very similar to how people described being transparent) and also direct — clear answers, no procrastination, clear feedback, no time wasting. In fact one person described honesty as “a combination of transparency and directness.”

Honesty is also someone willing to have an open dialogue about how you could work together.

“It was in an early stage funding meeting where the funder essentially indicated that should we come to the end of the project and ‘not solved the problem’ for which we were asking for funding — then they would be OK with that. It was refreshing to hear that, and made the process a lot more open than I think it would normally have been. “

“Everybody loses money writing applications, this can be make or break for small orgs, make it easy for them. I sometimes wonder if funders want good projects, or just good applications?”

Empathy looks like funders understanding how “their decisions affect our lives.” If a funding process considers the time and resource it can take to make grant applications, people experience that as empathetic.

It’s also why people want feedback on failed applications because it makes it feel like the effort put in was less of a sunk cost.

“Centres the experience of the applicant, making the process flexible, appropriate and as painless as possible. E.g. if you want creative projects from artists, why use a process that favours only good grant writers.”

“The money and support given is commensurate with the impact it will have on individuals’ lives — but with a mind on what the potential future impact could grow to become.”

Fairness touched on all the other things already mentioned — clarity, feedback, respect, empathy and transparency — and also that everything in the whole process feels proportionate.

One person added an alternative option — “open-mindedness” — an ability to look at things in alternative ways — “Our problem: funds, calls, (in our view) etc ask the wrong questions / fund activity that does not solve the problems the call is trying to address.”

Some examples of good relationship between funder and grantee

“It felt as much like a partnership as a funder-fundee relationship. Also, they were open to the fact that we might know more than them about the topic in question.”

Available, conversational, open to challenge. A relationship that feels caring, that includes talking through problems as much as solutions — and lastly, trust.

“The one who was really interested in what you actually do and wants to discuss as an equal rather than one that expects ‘impact’ stories after too short a time of giving too little money.”

“They supported me through the application process, explained clearly what was required by when, helped leverage their networks for both financial but also non-financial support. They behaved like a peer and colleague but also made us think about what was realistic, how we would measure progress and manage risks. Lots of sensible and thoughtful questions that we needed to consider not just for the proposal, but as part of our work more widely.”

What this means for me

I really appreciate the time people have taken to do this. I don’t yet know what I’ll be able to do whilst in my role at Big Lottery, but I do know that in the first instance I’m committed to writing openly — that feels like a first step in transparency — and to continuing to gather feedback from people — that feels like it will build empathy. The things that people have mentioned in this first Enquiry will be the benchmarks for how I try to operate personally, and I’ll be thinking of ways I can measure myself against them.

From next week I will be writing Week Notes with the team at Big Lottery — do any other funders write week notes? I’d love to be connected to them if they do.

And I’ll post another Funding Enquiry survey soon.

Written by

Senior Head, UK Portfolio at The National Lottery Community Fund & Co-founder of the Point People. Previously Strategic Design Director at Doteveryone.

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