NLCF: Funding the Crisis

This is the first in a series of blogs from funders, giving their perspectives on the COVID-19 pandemic, and the impact it has had on their grant making.

March 16th seems like a lifetime ago. It’s a date that will be etched in my memory as the day our lives turned upside down.

That evening we texted all 800 of our staff across the UK and asked them not to go into their offices the next day and to work from home.

It triggered a deep intake of breath and lots of crossed fingers that our systems would work, money would keep flowing, and we would all be able to talk to each other and our stakeholders and customers without leaving our homes. As it turned out – all systems were indeed ‘go’.

Three months on and it is clear we are not coming to the end of an extraordinary emergency, rather that we are moving from the end of a public health emergency into a sustained period of uncertainty and economic shock. It may be more about adaptation than recovery.

It’s a peculiar leadership challenge to grapple with – normal rules suspended, business as usual operating but through a totally different lens. We are a relationship-based organisation – both internally and externally. Our funding officers develop local or thematic relationships and networks, they meet people, they attend events and speak on our behalf. We travel to see each other, every year we have staff roadshows across the UK where we come together to take look at how we are doing.

Suddenly all our business is done through two dimensional boxes on a screen. Meeting new people, hearing new ideas don’t come so naturally, chance encounters don’t happen. We have to choreograph them, design them into Teams or Zoom meetings. Informal feedback loops have evaporated along with those ‘coffee machine’ moments. Yet there has been some a virtual `bumping into one another` and convening, reaching more people than we might through traditional methods – all enabled by technology and our human desire to connect and share experiences.

Of course, there is a real risk that our networks shrink and become narrower. But this doesn’t have to be the case – we can design this in, and I can see how if we did, then we could actually be more open, more porous, and more inclusive, because digital activity can be more egalitarian. But the way in which most of us are using it doesn’t achieve this. It does the opposite – it’s too easy to broadcast when we want dialogue and listening. Real work to be done here.

How have we as a senior team at the National Lottery Community Fund tried to weather this storm? We’ve probably talked with each other more than we did before, we work faster and are more open about challenges and differences of opinion so that we can get to decisions more quickly. To get through the basic first steps of the emergency we created a strategy group to drive decision-making as a sub-set of our SMT, and an operational group to drive implementation. As we move from exception to norm, we have rolled our crisis approach back into our normal ways of doing business.

And in moving back to BAU we are a different organisation. In a pulse survey of staff, it is clear very few people want to go back to the way we worked in offices before – they want more flexibility and less travel. There is a fair bit of feedback that for all the constraints and challenges, this time has given some people a better work/life balance. For others, the office is somewhere they want to be a couple of times a week, not every day. I know we are not outliers in this – many other organisations are getting this feedback -so with our teams we need to work out how this can work – and clearly it can because we haven’t been near our offices for over three months!

But what of our funding and our approach. We realised very quickly that Covid-19 was a gamechanger. We wanted to both support our existing grant-holders and to help new applicants where possible. But we also knew that we couldn’t support everyone and that we needed to move as quickly as we could.

What am I most proud of? The speed with which we adopted and promulgated a flexible approach to existing grant-holders, using grant variations to enable them to get some security and stability in the face of increased demand and reduced income. The speed with which we re-calibrated all our funding for the first half of the year or so to support those at the forefront of the crisis, recognising that in doing that we would disappoint some. The speed with which we got our ‘emerging futures’ work up and running so that we have been able to build our understanding of where we should focus in the future and how much flexibility and adaptability will be needed.

I’m proud too of all our staff for stepping up to the plate when it’s really mattered, for their passion, commitment, and professionalism. And I’m proud that we have ourselves been flexible for all staff trying to re-calibrate their own lives in the face of family and other demands. It’s been a delight to be joined by toddlers and teenagers, not to mention dogs and cats, in our SMT meetings. They have enriched proceedings no end.

What might I wish we had done differently? I wish we were further along our journey towards a more equitable society. But I’m also proud that we recognise the scale of this challenge and my colleagues who are working tirelessly to address this, with a willingness to learn and an absolute commitment to listen and to change.

What has delighted or surprised me? Well I shouldn’t be surprised, but I’ve definitely been delighted by the incredible efforts and generosity of spirit shown by so many working at grassroots: their energy, their commitment, their expertise, and understanding of what’s needed in their communities. And the adept way in which so many charities have just moved online lock stock and barrel. It’s also been shocking to see just how much money has been lost from the sector as fund-raising events, retail activity, and funding falls away. Hopefully this will re-start soon. But I’ve equally been impressed with the professionalism, stoicism, and resilience of charity leaders working against the tide to secure their organisations whilst also doing the right thing by their communities.

And for the future? That’s a tough call as we head out of lockdown (notwithstanding a second wave). Does life just pick up as it was for everyone? Or just for some of us, with others left behind having to live more constrained lives? Were those emblematic Thursday evening claps for the NHS a charming interlude before we return to busy lives with our backs turned on our communities? Or do we hold on to and build on that nexus so that our communities grow and flourish – and for that to happen how does society have to change? Not least, funders and charities –now that is a whole other story…