Charity trustees weighing up money for charitable funding on weighing scales


A Philanthropic Anomaly: Giving with one hand and taking away with the other

A charitable trust announces a funding round focussed on a particular, fairly narrow, cause. Pretty much every charity working in that field (mostly small ones) scratches their head, bites their pencil, fiddles with a spreadsheet and submits an application.

I was working with a small charity that applied, and some weeks later found out they were unlucky. Disappointing of course.

The feedback was that the funder received 356 applications and could only fund 30-40 of them.

As an experienced charity consultant, I hope I am not naïve about the realities of funding small and pressurised organisations to deliver increasingly complex services. Nor the regulations that govern funders.

And I really do admire (most) charitable trusts, their influence for good and the great care they take to do the right thing, particularly in such difficult times.

But, here’s the thing.

Let’s say that it took an average of 2 days for each application to be written; it takes AGES. Always longer than you expect. Finding the evidence, working out travel costs, reducing 327 words to 299. Most of those applications will have been written by a service manager, CEO, or possibly trustee of a very small organisation.

This adds up to 600 days – nearly 2 years – of small charity management time.

How many zillion other essential activities are on the jobs list of a chief executive of a small charity, relevant to the wellbeing of beneficiaries or the survival of the organisation?

Funders (like fundees) must be sure public money is spent as intended. And, of course, they want to make every effort to seek the biggest bang for their buck. But is this really the only way of doing it? Some people bung in all sorts of strange applications, ignoring funders’ guidance. But even so, I am guessing that pretty much most of those 300+ unsuccessful applications would have, directly or indirectly, made a real difference to the lives of some intended beneficiaries.

You might suggest that it’s down to the charity to assess whether it’s worth the time of submitting a bid. But. Small charities really, really need the money, so there isn’t actually much choice.

If I had millions to give away in charity funding, and wanted to focus on a particular cause, here’s what I might do:

  1. Set the amount to ask for. No need to put 36p less than the maximum so it doesn’t look like a round figure.
  2. Request half a page (max) setting out what the charity would spend the money on. (I know it can be harder to write less than more, but I am still guessing this should only take a couple of hours.)
  3. Not ask for charitable purpose or accounts because my (imaginary) grants officer can go on to the Charity Commission website and look it up! And if I thought a charity was missing the intention of the grant, or costings were fantastical, but I could see that organisation does what I want to fund, I would ring them up and talk to them.
  4. And then I would put all the pages in a great big hat, and livestream my trustees randomly pulling out the first 30.

Result? Probably pretty similar impact. A bit more expensive for the funder because of checking the charities are legit; but effectively gives back 450 days to people working at the sharp end (600 minus the half-days).

Given the desperate pressures facing small charities in times of austerity, could we sometimes do things differently?