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Reflecting on our 2019 grant making

Author: Hilary Cornish, Evaluation & Learning Manager

Our Evaluation and Learning Manager, Hilary Cornish, takes some time to look back on the Trust's grant making in 2019 for this blog post. Read their reflections below.

Each year we look back on the previous year’s grant making – pulling together the stats, and reading and reflecting on the learning that comes through from interim and final reports sent to us by grantees. The Grants Team at the Trust put the learning into context and present to our Grant Committees along with recommendations for any actions.

The events of 2020 so far offer a radically different perspective to look back on 2019 and see how our learning and grant making positions us for dealing with the current situation and future shifts.

Ensuring funding goes to projects that strengthen the voice of those with first-hand experience of poverty and inequality is part of the 2018-22 strategy. 2019 really saw us starting to understand the impacts of that on our work and learn lessons across the programme areas as the reflections below will show. We’ve changed funding guidelines in response to what we’ve been learning from our Stronger Voices programme, and for what work we fund for Deaf and Disabled people, and we’ve been learning about the different models, and resource requirements needed to make this work meaningful.

2019 was an election year, and our funded work has been in the context of a fast-moving policy and political landscape. Whilst that brought some opportunities for advocating for policy positions to alleviate poverty and inequality, for other projects shifts in policy-maker attention or positions within government set back work building relationships and coalitions. We also saw a worrying rhetoric emerge painting London as a city of elites – obscuring the reality of poverty in the city.

Finally, digital exclusion emerged as key issue from grantee organisations. Whether its shifts in technology in the workplace impacting worker’s pay and conditions, or the transition to universal credit and online applications increased the burden on organisations supporting those to apply – this was a theme we saw emerging in 2019 that has been eclipsed in scale by the events of 2020.

Last year, we also invested in the relaunch of the London's Poverty Profile at a cost of £148k to fund the data processing, analysis, research and improving the ease of use.

We had 292 applications for funding through our main programmes and special initiatives in 2019, and we approved 118 of those grants – keeping our success rate fairly steady at 40%. We have been tracking a small decline in applications over the last three years, we think reflecting clarifications in our funding guidelines, as we haven’t noticed a drop in quality of applications, or from new grantees. We welcome applications from new organisations, and aim for at least 30% of our grants to go to organisations that we haven’t funded before – in 2019 we exceeded that slightly at 33%.

The majority of the projects we funded were for 3 years (51%) with the average (mean) grant size of £83,500. The size of our grants has increased, the median figures show a £15k year on year increase. The average grant size changes for different programme areas, the mean grant size for our small grant programme Connected Communities was £40,000.

Our largest are of funding is advice provision – we awarded £4.1m to support advice giving in London, 42% of our overall grant spend. Policy and Campaigning work make up 30% of our grant spend at £2.9m. We spend a much smaller amount on research on £300k (3%) in 2019, although we also invested significantly in the London Poverty Profile relaunch. The remaining work was on capacity building, other service provision, and work on shifting public attitudes.

We award funding through seven main programmes targeting work tackling the root causes of poverty and inequality to make the most impact with our funding.

We made 14 grants in this programme in 2019, down from 23 in 2018. We didn’t expect such a drop, which was mostly a reflection of fewer applications for campaigning and research grants, not advice or capacity building work. This might be partly explained by high numbers of campaigning and research grants in 2018, as a result of our own proactive work and the national policy focus on housing. With more relationships being formed through the London Housing Panel and the London Housing Campaigners Group, we expect to see more applications rise again in future. Several of the grants are funding projects on inequalities in housing – training, capacity building, and forming alliances to tackle the issue. We have seen some of the fruits of the campaigning and research work coming in 2019.

One area that has emerged for further work is user-led approaches to temporary accommodation as an area of acute housing need.

We’ve really seen the value of relationship-building – and looking at how the Trust can give that space and time in our work and to support grantees. We’re also learning how best to use our power as a funder – trying to navigate a role where we support those in the sector, whilst balancing voices, and lending our weight when needed at times.

The Better Work programme aims to tackle low paid, often precarious work – to improve employment practices, engaging employers and supporting workers to tackle low pay and achieve their rights. We funded 25 projects in 2019, where high employment rates were balanced with concerns about precarity, in-work poverty, and the impact of expanding self-employment and the ‘gig’ economy. Five of these grants were made as part of the Moving on Up initiative to tackle employment inequalities for young black men using a collective impact approach in Newham and Brent.

We saw consolidation of work tackling precarious employment, with actions led by people with first-hand experience. There is key learning emerging around the ties between social insecurity and precarity, that show that increased wages alone don’t reduce the risk of poverty.

We’re identifying a need for bringing together conversations about precarity with those around future changes in workplaces through major policy and technology shifts, that has only been heightened by COVID-19.

We’re also hearing how critical it is to bring focus to broader discussions about post-Brexit impacts on workers – whether its changes in migration, employment law and enforcement.

Learning is emerging from several grants that are engaging with employers – with common challenges around private sector disinterest, and differing views between employers and workers on issues of improving equalities or workplace conditions. Grantees report trying to identify pressure points and incentives that could lead to meaningful shifts in practice, and when they do get employers to engage they are finding demands for practical guidance and advice on solutions.

In 2019 we made 14 grants through this programme, aiming to enable all Londoners to meet their basic needs by boosting incomes and reducing the high costs of essentials. The majority of these grants were for welfare support projects, including six for advice work. Other grants were for campaigning, research and policy work to reduce the cost of living. Some of the key learning emerging has been from Deaf and Disabled People Organisations around the qualitative differences of user or peer-led services and what added value they bring. The Commission on Social Security also continues to deliver a wealth of learning around experiences of the social security system, and opportunities for reform to improve incomes. We’ve also noticed an emerging rhetoric that frames London as a city of elites, with the potential to obscure poverty in London, exacerbated by the high cost of living, and particularly housing costs.

This programme aims to address London’s income and wealth inequality. We made just one grant under this programme in 2019 and we have reflected on the challenge of finding actionable policy or practical solutions to fund, in part due to the highly politicised nature of the work. We have had some notable successes in policy change emerging from previously funded work. A grant to Transparency International funded their support to the Joint Committee on the Draft Registration of Overseas Entities Bill in Parliament, which was announced as part of the Queen’s Speech and policies advocated by the High Pay Centre were featured in all major General Election manifestos, including the Conservatives pledge to reform executive pay incentives.

These successes have been in highly focussed areas, and tactically have either framed issues in ways to gain government support, involved consistent behind the scenes work, and/or pushed for shifts in public attitudes.

We awarded 29 grants in 2019 to support disadvantaged migrants to resolve their migration status and participate in London life. About half the grants went to fund specialist immigration advice, with the rest for campaigning work. Brexit continued as a dominant issue throughout 2019 raising concerns for more vulnerable EU migrants. The rebranding of the ‘hostile’ to a ‘compliant’ environment didn’t shift the emphasis on making life hard for those without the right documents. We’ve also been hearing from grantees that the shifting to online processes is an additional burden to support clients. The Home Office or other bodies have been responding to individual cases, before they are fully heard, which has weakened the impact of legal challenges. Although it means positive outcomes for individuals represented, we don’t see changes embedded and benefiting others. Reduced Legal Aid funding continues to challenge organisations, as individual funders like the Trust aren’t able to make up the shortfall. We’ve also noticed, that whilst the proportion of our funding to migrant-led organisations did increase, the majority of our campaign grants don’t go to migrant-led projects, and we plan to address this going forward.

We awarded only 3 grants in this programme in 2018 and responded by clarifying and developing our guidance to include support groups of individuals as well as organisations. This resulted in 11 grants in 2019, the majority are committed to amplifying the voice of those with direct experience of poverty and aim to bring about policy or system change. Some of the work funded has focussed on broad experiences of poverty, and some on specific groups (such as racialised minorities or deaf and/ or disabled people). We have noticed a gap in our funding around LGBT+ people’s organisations, and plan to proactively address this going forward.

We are rapidly learning what it means to strengthen and centre those with first-hand experience in our work in the Stronger Voices programme, and other related work, including a slower pace and increased costs. Space is needed for people to process deeply personal experiences, and time to carefully manage the diversity of experiences between participants and address any interpersonal tensions early.

The development or implementation of new ways of working such as consensus-building, participatory approaches, co-design and partnership also demands new skills and time, and much of this work needs to be underpinned by a deep understanding of systems – local, community, social, political, economic. Another related issue we are grappling with is how to fairly value people’s commitment and time, when payment might also impact on their benefits or tax credit. At its heart this work is challenging: for the Trust, for grantee organisations and for participants in projects, bringing up issues around power that are not easily resolved.

Our final programme area aims to fund small groups, mainly run by volunteers and part-time workers, as a vital part of local communities in areas with high need. We funded 22 projects in 2019 in three strands - 12 for advice work, 4 for community activities in isolated areas and 6 to strengthen voice. As part of this programme in 2019 we also ran a second crowdfunding scheme which provided matched funds to 9 small organisations and provided a grant to Advice UK to offer bespoke training to 10 small advice agencies to achieve the Advice Quality Standard mark.

One of the emerging areas of learning for smaller advice agencies is around additional time needed to support to bilingual people and those with low levels of English literacy now that application and management of universal credit is online. Digital exclusion was apparent in 2019, and has become even more critical at present.

We clarified the guidance for the community activities in isolated areas strand to clearly show the focus on Outer London boroughs, hoping to attract more applications, however this hasn’t yet translated into an increase.

It is a strange moment to look back at 2019, given the rapid and sweeping changes that 2020 has brought. 2019 was the second year of our five-year strategy, and we started to see learning and outcomes come back from some of our earlier, and shorter grants. Whilst our interim and final reports have been delayed as grantees have had to rapidly adapt, whilst managing radically different working conditions, staff sickness, and grief – we’ve also seen a lot of learning being shared and circulated through new means. It’s still crucial to carve out time to reflect, and see what learning we can use to inform our responses and future work.

This is a snapshot of our work and findings in 2019. You can read our 2018 reflections here. We publish details of all our grant making, both as a readable list and through the 360Giving data standard, where you can explore and compare between years, and see what emergency grants we’ve been making in response to COVID-19.

A note on Equality Data

We have been working hard this past year to improve and analyse data about the kinds of organisations we fund, and planned participants or beneficiaries of projects. This is coming and we will report on it separately this year, and include stats on this as part of our annual reflections going forward.