What do people think about the Community Foundation?

Drummer in a line

What do people think about the Community Foundation?

We were recently commissioned to run a survey asking applicants and grantees what they thought of the Community Foundation. This week we're hearing from Mark Pierce, the foundation's Associate Director of Knowledge and Research, about how our findings helped them identify the strengths and weaknesses of their application process

Mark Pierce,  Associate Director of Knowledge and Research at the Community Foundation

At the Community Foundation we like to think we have a fairly close relationship with our grantees, and that they wouldn’t be too shy to tell us where we could be doing better. And a bit of constructive criticism is genuinely appreciated. But we also know it can be difficult, particularly if you are a new grantee or have been unsuccessful in applying, to raise concerns about how a funding partner conducts their business.

So the Community Foundation decided to commission nfpResearch to carry out an independent and confidential survey of grantees and unsuccessful applicants. Their remit was to gather local civil society organisations’ views on us as a funder and their experience as applicants and grantees, exploring what they think we do well and where we could do better. It is something they have specialised in for some time, and so not only did they understand the mechanics of grant making but they were also able to benchmark our performance against that of the other charitable funders they have worked with.

An initial survey was conducted online in Spring 2022, with 274 grantees and 83 unsuccessful applicants contributing. Respondents were pretty typical of the organisations we deal with every day. The majority were relatively small and based in Northumberland, Tyne & Wear and County Durham. A group of 10 respondents from across the region were then approached for further feedback through in-depth interviews towards the end of the year. Their work covered a range of issues, and a representative percentage worked with communities of place, interest or identity at risk of being disadvantaged.

So what did we find out?

Let’s start with the negatives. Just as the pandemic hit in early 2020 we were in the process of implementing a new online grants application and management system. Although it enabled us to keep making grants throughout the pandemic through remote working, there were problems and delays in addressing them. At times this made the job of applicants who were setting up profiles on the system difficult and frustrating, and at times applications seemed to get waylaid. Respondents rightly gave us robust feedback on the problems they experienced, but happily more recent applicants reported an improvement as we sorted out the system’s teething problems.

On a related point a number of respondents highlighted how our online application process can initially be daunting, particularly for new groups with limited experience:

“There are quite a few steps to the process – once you have done it a couple of times or if you are familiar with other grant making processes it is not too bad but it can be overwhelming initially and may put new applicants off.”

We understand that we ought to be thinking about how we can improve our accessibility to new applicants, particularly those groups that may be small, volunteer-led and new to the funding world. There probably is nothing better here than to offer personal contact and an offer of support. We will endeavour to ensure that this is offered to all new applicants that need it.

A further issue to emerge from the survey was the need for us to ensure applicants and grantees are better informed about what we require from them, and what we can offer in return. They told us that we needed to be clearer about how and when to apply, what our requirements were in terms of key issues like safeguarding and also more proactive in advertising the support and services we can offer. Action has already taken place to address some of these concerns, in particular through the overhaul of our website – another project delayed by the pandemic. And given the level of demand suggested by the survey, we will continue to promote and develop our offer of in-kind support such as advice and training, networking opportunities, the provision of meeting space; trustee match and pro-bono support services. These services are, where appropriate, now being offered routinely to unsuccessful applicants to increase their chances of future success.

The survey highlighted that communication with our people was highly valued by all applicants and during the pandemic respondents had missed opportunities for personal contact with staff, donors and trustees. As one respondent told us:

“It would be nice to have visits from the Community Foundation staff every so often so they can see the work taking place for themselves other than just receive the monitoring reports.”

So as life returns to normal, we are reinstating personal contact with our applicants and grantees through a renewed programme of events and review visits.

What were the positives?

In general applicants – both successful and unsuccessful – were happy with our funding service. It was gratifying to see that the most common words used to describe us were “supportive” and “helpful”, and that the overwhelming majority of respondents feeling we were fair in our dealings with them and had a positive impact on applicants and communities.

We were also seen as a funder that understood what was going on within communities and knew our grantees well-enough to engage with them effectively around providing funding to meet local needs. One respondent said:

“It understands what we are about and what we are trying to do in supporting our community. Its a go to place for friendly advice and support gives quick decisions when they are needed the most. It feels as if we are asking friends for help.”

Our fund guidelines, website and e-news were singled out as particularly useful means of communication between the Community Foundation and applicants and grantees. Around a third of respondents made use of our more detailed research publications, Vital Signs and Third Sector Trends, which offer in depth analysis of the issues affecting communities and civil society organisations.

A point made in the survey was that streamlining and improving our grant application, management and monitoring processes further should be a goal, and we take this on board. But generally the current system was felt to be robust, with useful support provided from our grant managers and operational support staff when issues arose. Compared to other funders researched by nfpResearch our application process was somewhat less time-consuming for applicants, and decisions were delivered relatively fast with most applications processed in under 3 months. It was also felt by a number of respondents that we provided a small community organisations with an accessible route into funding. We were pleased that 84% of grantees found that we were helpful after they received their grants, and although aspects of the reporting back process were felt by some to be onerous we also received considerable positive feedback on recent improvements. One respondent said:

“For us, the process has always been quite simple and easy to follow. There has been support when asked for and a simple feedback system has helped as well.”

A final area we did well in was support for unsuccessful applicants. Having an application turned down is never a good experience, but it can provide an opportunity to learn how to be more successful in future. We are pleased that more than half of those we turned down felt we had given them a clear decision, with around 1 in 5 requesting more detailed feedback and finding it useful. It really is the case that many of those we turn down go on to be successful with future applications, so we will continue to prioritise practical support for groups that are struggling to secure funding.

How will we use this research?

Whilst it is great to have many positives to build on, we know there is no room for complacency. We are a high volume grant-maker that specialises in supporting organisations that are below other funders’ radar such as unregistered charities. This presents challenges in terms of finding the time to develop relationships with applicants and grantees, and balancing the need to account for charitable grant expenditure with a “light touch” approach to monitoring. We will continue to look for creative ways to overcome these.

Our grantee survey threw up some interesting ideas for us to examine further. One was whether we could assist groups by being more proactive in informing them about future funding opportunities or helping them to formulate funding development plans. And we have already implemented some significant changes. Drawing on learning from programmes and research undertaken during the pandemic as well as our grantee survey, we have acted to significantly widen access to core funding for charities; provided a time-limited programme of additional funding to help groups weather the cost-of-living crisis; taken action to engage communities more in our funding decisions and increased the range of funding we provide to social enterprises to include service provision.

Finally nfp’s research into the grantee survey has provided us with a wealth of information, which we intend to mine further. A particular priority will be to further analyse the results with an eye for issues of equity, inclusion and diversity to see how we can ensure our service benefits all communities of place, interest and identity in the North East. And we will also use the survey to inform our work to help communities address the impact of climate change in our region.

To get in contact with Community Foundation about this research, contact Mark Pierce at mp@communityfoundation.org.uk 

Or, to learn more about our work with grant-makers, consider downloading a briefing pack below.

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