What’s on funders’ minds after a year of Covid-19 – and how can collaboration help? 

Last month, the Funders’ Collaborative Hub brought together 10 funders to share their ideas, hopes and challenges as they develop their plans for Covid-19 recovery.  

This disparate group included staff and trustees from local and national grant-makers of all sizes, with wide-ranging funding interests. Half of those who joined us had taken part in previous Hub events; for the others, this was their first involvement. 

We hoped that this conversation would provide opportunities for funders to learn from each other’s work and identify points of connection to help them take their plans forward more confidently or effectively. We also wanted to gather insights into the evolving needs of funders, as we develop the Hub’s events and resources to support funder collaboration. 

“Foundations are rising to the challenge” 

To set the scene, we heard from the Association of Charitable Foundations’ Head of Policy, Max Rutherford. Max shared the findings of recent research into foundations’ responses to Covid-19 over the last year and their projections for the year ahead.  

Despite many foundations’ concerns about the effects of the pandemic on their own finances, a large majority plan to sustain or increase their grant-making this year. Most of them also expect to continue funding differently, taking account of the ongoing impact of Covid-19, for the whole of 2021 or even longer. 

There were encouraging signs that, as they make their plans for supporting the recovery, foundations want to sustain the benefits of collaboration that helped them to navigate the challenges of 2020. More than three-quarters of large foundations, and almost one-in-three of the smallest, said that they plan to collaborate with other funders in 2021. 

Looking ahead 

As our event participants reflected on these wider trends and shared their own thoughts, some common themes emerged. 

There was a sense of funders’ time horizons shifting, as they move on from ‘crisis mode’ to focus on longer-term impacts of the pandemic, the sustainability of the voluntary sector and ‘bigger picture’ issues like climate change. We heard about growing interest in developing approaches to grant-making based on participation, power-sharing and trust. 

Yet with many Covid-19 restrictions still in place, funders talked about not yet being ‘out of the woods’ – fuelling concerns about prioritisation in the face of rising need and constrained resources. They also acknowledged their own need to re-energise after a year of remote working. 

Exploring these themes in more depth helped us to identify some key challenges and opportunities for funder collaboration. 

“We need more data” 

Funders need data to help them make increasingly difficult choices about priorities. As one of our group said: “We need more data and intelligence – good quality and in real time – about the sector as it recovers, adapts and faces continued challenges.”  Whether they decide to align their priorities with other funders or try to identify and fill the gaps, greater awareness of what others are doing can only make these choices better informed.  

There are examples of funder collaborations that are already doing this, like the Arts Funders Network, who recently published an analysis of £88million given to arts and culture by trusts and foundations. Another group of funders has developed a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) data standard, so that by capturing DEI data more consistently, funders will be better able to target funding to address inequalities.  

Making new connections 

In 2020, the enormity and urgency of responding to the pandemic provided an obvious point of alignment across the different cause areas that traditionally define funders’ work. Now, in the ‘recovery’ phase, funders are contemplating different challenges – like how to support voluntary sector resilience, or how to get comfortable with sharing more of their decision-making power.  

Issues like these also have the potential to span sector boundaries. As the funders at our gathering started to exchange tips, contacts and ideas, it showed the value of new connections. “You’re thinking about establishing a youth grants panel? I can introduce you to a funder who’s been doing this for 5 years or so…” 

Funders who want to reach out beyond their existing networks can make use of the Hub’s Collaboration Requests noticeboard. If you’re working on something that might benefit from talking to other funders about it, why not post a request and share what’s on your mind?  

Simple, practical solutions 

The challenges of the last year have left many funders – in common with people working in most areas of civil society – feeling tired. Collaboration requires effort, particularly into nurturing relationships. As one funder asked: “How long can this withstand Zoom?” 

By identifying and channelling learning from the collaborations that developed during the pandemic, we hope to make it easier for funders to keep on collaborating. This is what our Funder Collaboration Toolkit sets out to do, in simple, practical ways.  

So for example, if you’re feeling the Zoom fatigue, the Meeting Planner tool could help you make better use of your time with other funders – rather than necessarily spending more time. 

Keep in touch 

Despite widespread weariness with meeting on screens, it’s encouraging that ten funders chose to spend a Monday morning coming together – yes, on Zoom – to share what’s on their minds.  

The Funders’ Collaborative Hub will draw on the insights generated from these conversations as we develop our new events programme for the rest of this year. To get details of these events when they’re announced, make sure you sign up to our newsletter and follow us on Twitter