Eva Astreinidou

Content Writer

Charities Aid Foundation

What does it take to build trust between funders and charities?

12 December 2018

Being honest about the help you need and asking for support is not easy.

Charities face that challenge every time they submit bids for funding and charity grants from trusts and foundations, as they try to achieve a balance of showing they have their affairs in order while also being pragmatic about the support they need.

With public funding is few and far between, the sense of appearing to be faultless is an approach some charities may feel they have to take – but could that take away from a potentially meaningful and trusting relationship with funders, and harm the charity itself in the long run?

And if charities are dependent on a funder approving their application, does that mean too much power is handed over to funders? Can that imbalance of power and the lack of trust between funders and charities be changed?

Steph Taylor, who works in Charity Advisory and Grant Making at CAF, sat down with three of the charities supported by the CAF Resilience programme, who have just completed their first year on the scheme, to explore these topics further.

Main challenges in the funder/charity relationship

Steph: Welcome everyone. Firstly I would like to explore the kinds of relationships you have with funders. What do you think is one of the main challenges you face in making those work?

Jo Davies (WILD Young Parents Project): I think it has become a cultural thing between charities and funders that you feel obliged to have the answers to every question and find ways to make that happen, as if it’s a payment-by-results kind of contract.

Part of the problem is that relationships with funders can vary so hugely. We have worked with funders who have not worked in a similar field to us and hadn’t had a clue what life was like for real people. So therefore the evaluation seems impossible to fulfil.

It’s things like charities not having different departments. For us and a lot of other small charities, for instance, everyone gets stuck in and does a bit of everything. You have to clean the loo, buy the toilet roll, as well as sorting everything else out.

Steph: I mean we can’t move every charity sector person to the funding sector but I do think there’s something about funders who are interested in more than just due diligence.

John Hallett (ACE): With such a broad range of funders, you will have great experiences, real reciprocity, partnership and support, and not so great experiences, funders who say ‘don’t expect to hear from us’, or ‘have you done this, yes or no’ rather than ‘how’s it working’? 

Sometimes, you work extensively on an application, and receive an automatic reply saying don’t expect a response at all, basically, don’t ask any questions either. Communication varies massively, from very set, form-based processes, or one go-to person who’s not massively accessible at times, to over communication and demands. It’s often who you know, introductions and influence that helps you understand how to apply, develop relationships and gain funding.

Jo: As an example, we used to have a grants officer that would come down and spend some time doing activities with the young mums. She suddenly disappeared due to structural changes the funder was going through.

From then on, we would receive a very prescriptive form that we have to fill out every six months that is linked to the outcomes that you want to make over three years. After that, it took six months for them to just say they received it. We had no feedback on it - until they said they were inundated with grant applications. All we got was 'Thank you for your application'. I think there’s a real trick being missed there.

A group of people holding hands

Balancing the relationship and the money

Steph: What would you say is the perfect balance between the funder building a strong relationship and learning what’s going on against getting as much money as possible out to the frontline?

Jo: I like having a relationship that is much more detailed and involved to help the core of your charity. From our point of view, it would be useful to know why grantmakers’ structures are changing. I imagine that their senior managers have a very clear vision but I don’t think that vision filters down necessarily to the receiver of the grants and so they just can feel a little bit ‘dumped’. It’s just confusing.

Steph: Just to play devil’s advocate, why do you think funders should be communicating their strategy? From their perspective, they’re always going to have enough grantees and they usually want to get more money out.

Jo: Then we are getting on to who is in charge? It’s a power dynamic thing. The idea is that by holding the money, you bring the knowledge. And that’s not true. We are bringing the money and knowledge together by collaboration and they don’t necessarily have the knowledge but everyone assumes they do. In the same way, you can assume that about people who have wealth in society, as though they have more clout because of their wealth.

Dave Close (Hot Chocolate Trust): Funders want to make a difference in the world, but without us they’re just a big bank account. Money itself doesn’t make that difference. So just getting into our heads that funders need us as much as we need them is helpful for the funded bodies because it helps us to remember our value and hold that confidence. For me, that should always be up there at the heart of the funder-funded relationship.

Jo: Just being able to talk to funders and realise they are just as interested in the outcomes as you are - which you would assume that they are - is so meaningful. But each one needs the other so it has to be co-produced really.

Creating an equal funder and charity power dynamic

Steph: Do you think there can ever be a power dynamic that is equal between an organisation and a funder?

John: It’s knowing what they want and how they work as a funder. The grants officer might have one idea, then the board might have another. In some cases, you’re assigned a grants officer who tells you off for something like not using their logos – speaking of power and relationships, that seemed to me as an adult child dynamic potentially.

Steph: Being able to change and adapt along the way is really important. For us at CAF, one of our priorities for the Resilience programme was choosing organisations where people can be self-reflective and be open to sharing that journey with us, and share if you’ve made mistakes. Do you find that that is the case with many other funders?

Dave: With CAF, it’s not just the exchange of funds and it’s a relationship that is built over three years so there’s more time to do more trust-building.

Jo: It has been a really big change in mindset for us, being able to have honest types of conversations with a funder and having that working relationship where you are both trying to find stuff out and trying to make it work.

I do think that the way we talk to other funders and grantmakers is now changing. The experience with Resilience has helped us challenge things with them.

Steph: That’s interesting, and I guess it hadn’t occurred to me that when you’ve got that foundation of money and support, you can be coming from a stronger position when you speak to funders, and can maybe even take into consideration which funders you can and can’t take.

John: The process felt the same for us at the beginning as well. We weren’t quite sure what Resilience was about because of the different approach to funding and there was a slight fear sometimes thinking along the lines of ‘oh we haven’t done that, or ‘we haven’t come around to that yet’, and what could that mean for us? But now it’s a very honest and transparent relationship, and there’s a flexibility there.

Jo: We have never worked in partnership with a grantmaking body before in that way so that collaborative feeling of being able to say if something is going wrong is great. That makes you bolder to try new things and not to just stick with what you know you’ll get a good result from.

Parting thoughts

What became clear through this discussion is that giving out money and support is not enough.

Without genuine openness from grantees, encouraged by funders asking what didn’t work and being open to the possibility that outcomes predicted at the start might have changed by the end, the trust needed to really make social change will not be built.