We need to make the most of research

Given the lack of resources for research in the sector, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets in his latest column for Third Sector.

This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 3rd October 2017.

GD*40628393I recently spoke about how the foundation uses research at the annual Voluntary Sector and Volunteering Research Conference.

It was a potential undiscovered goldmine of useful research relevant to practitioners on subjects as wide as engaging black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, working with refugees, research methods and working with volunteers. It left me wondering why I’d never heard of it before. Researchers talking to researchers might improve knowledge but it won’t spread learning. And that’s a major challenge for a fragmented voluntary sector.

We know funders are fortunate to have the resources. This is why it’s so important that those who research the sector speak actively to those who work in the sector.

Our detractors, especially those in central and local government, often chastise the voluntary sector for being an evidence-free zone. Often with an assumption that small and local charities are particularly guilty.

When it comes to delivering services, local charities end up having to plead the case to would-be commissioners, often against much larger competitors. In my experience, commissioners should be beating at the doors of local charities that can reach people and places larger providers can’t get near. The Grenfell Tower tragedy showed this starkly. When the chips were down, only the local charities got anywhere near.

The evidence challenge is, of course, a big problem for small and local charities that rarely have the resources for research – or the time to engage with other researchers out there.

So what role can commissioners of research play?

Funders should certainly help practitioners to get back on the front foot – by building an evidence narrative that speaks to the intimate knowledge of local organisations that reach parts of our communities that others can’t.

Large funders such as Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales that work directly with frontline voluntary sector organisations have an important role in this. By bringing together what we learn from the many organisations we fund, we can produce unique insights into what matters and what works to tackle disadvantage. And because we can aggregate data from hundreds of small charities we can create a story of scale through hundreds of delivery points – not a single standard contract or provider.

Given how poorly resourced sector research is, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn.

We know funders are fortunate to have the resources. This is why it’s so important that those who research the sector speak actively to those who work in the sector.

Succinct summary evidence briefings, such as those produced by the Economic and Social Research Council, can be very useful for busy chief executives who only have 10 minutes to spare. But as Karl Wilding, director of public policy and volunteering at the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, said at the research conference this isn’t just about “disseminating findings”; it’s about active engagement between researchers and practitioners.

Given how poorly resourced sector research is, we must extract every drop of value from what we learn.

Those who fund research should insist researchers spend as much effort on discussing their findings with the practitioners they’ve researched, and asking how they can improve their own service evaluation, as they do on a glossy report that may tick a funder box, but will then likely gather dust. Without this, those researched are little more than lab rats.

It’s a huge task, but in gradually bringing together knowledge of what works to tackle disadvantage from those we fund, we hope to help reshape and re-educate the thinking on what others – with deeper public sector pockets – might value. And by doing this, we’ll bring the voices of those at the receiving end of services to the fore and help determine how services are commissioned and paid for. It’s what good consumer-driven organisations strive for and we should do the same.

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Enhancing the fantastic work of small and local charities

Harriet Stranks, Director of Grant Making North and Wales at Lloyds Bank Foundation for England & Wales sheds light on the Foundation’s flagship Enhance programme and how charities can make best use of all the extra support on offer. 

Here at Lloyds Bank Foundation we consider ourselves more than just a funder. We recognise the value of small and local charities and are committed to doing everything we can to support you to survive and thrive in this tough economic climate.

With over 30 years’ experience of awarding charities grants, we recognised that there was more we could do to help you become stronger and more sustainable so you can keep supporting people facing disadvantage in the years to come.

Enhance prog

Three years ago, we developed a new programme called ‘Enhance’. The programme aims to offer the charities we fund through our grants a menu of bespoke and tailored support that can help them to grow stronger, become more fundable and ultimately improve more lives through the services and support they provide.

And even better, we help you identify suitable suppliers or consultants who have experience working with small and medium-sized charities – and the bill’s on us!

There are so many areas of support available through Enhance, including (but not limited to):

  • Practical and tangible help such as improving social media skills, website development or even support to renew a lease.
  • Leadership skills for senior charity staff such as courses from School for Social Entrepreneurs, Ella Forums for similarly minded voluntary sector leaders in your region or taking part in action learning sets. We know small charity leaders relish the opportunity to share ideas, opportunities and challenges, learn from and support each other.
  • Mentoring opportunities for charity staff made possible through our access to the skills and expertise from within Lloyds Banking Group. Lloyds staff bring with them many useful and practical transferable skills but also a passion for helping a local organisation. Positively, we have noticed significant numbers choosing to take on a more formal role with the charity, such as becoming trustee when their mentor relationship comes to an end.
Enhance
Watch our Mudlarks video to hear more & see our funding in action

Charities often tell us they feel like a kid in a sweet shop when we explain what’s available through Enhance and often naturally initially want everything on offer.  From experience, we know that this approach isn’t sensible in the long run so your local Grant Manager, who will already have a deep knowledge of your charity, will be on hand to help you to consider your charity’s needs, priorities, and the actions you might need to take to get to where you aspire to be in three years’ time.

Charities often tell us they feel like a kid in a sweet shop when we explain what’s available through Enhance

Each charity’s Enhance journey is different. Some start from a tactical need with immediate impact whilst others take a more strategic approach and revisit mission, vision and values. Often a large factor in what’s possible is the time and energy charities can realistically commit to these development opportunities.

It is key for charities to remember that, for Enhance to really come in to its own, there needs to be genuine trust and openness between themselves and their Grant Manager.

Sometimes it can be tricky for charities to feel like they can be totally honest with us and we understand this. But we do sincerely see ourselves as your critical friend, not just a grant giver and we want you to be able to tell us when things are going wrong.  Our simple aim is to ensure you get the best and most appropriate support to strengthen your charity. It’s important to us that we maintain your confidence, so we choose not to stay involved once we have commissioned the support you need. That’s down for you to manage with your consultant/ supplier, unless you ask for our help.

Our simple aim is to ensure you get the best and most appropriate support to strengthen your charity

Since we launched Enhance, we’ve arranged 436 packages of support for charities across England and Wales. This hefty menu of support, available to charities in each year of their grants life cycle, is only expanding as demand rises. So, if you’re a Foundation funded grantee, what are you waiting for? Contact your Grant Manager and take advantage of our offer to enhance your already fantastic work.

A summer with the Foundation

This summer the Foundation welcomed interns Emily and Emma to our team. In this blog post, the two students reflect on what they will take away from their time at an independent grant making foundation, and why they think our partnership with the Bank has powerful potential.

Emily and Emma are participants on the Lloyds Scholars programme, a unique social mobility programme run by Lloyds Banking Group.

Why Lloyds Bank Foundation is worth knowing about

The best kept secret in the Bank is its own Foundation

This statement certainly rang true for me before being offered an internship in the Foundation as part of the Lloyds Scholars Programme. Initially, I incorrectly assumed the Foundation fell within one of the Bank’s streams; so writing this reflection, nearing the conclusion of my ten-week placement, is a great opportunity to portray a snapshot of this independent organisation and its dedicated teams, from an alternative perspective. Whether you are a fellow Scholar, a Bank colleague, a grantee or a casual follower of the Foundation, it is worth knowing about the crucial and compassionate work of this thirty-strong team that touches every part of our community.

The Foundation offers holistic support packages to small and medium sized charities who assist clients in breaking from cycles of multiple disadvantage. In my first week, I processed applications for the summer round of Invest, one of the Foundation’s two funding programmes that allow charities to develop and increase their reach in the communities they serve. Grant-recipients can then benefit from the Foundation’s Enhance programme, which offers non-financial, tailored support to help these smaller charities prosper in an increasingly competitive and turbulent environment.

Only after visiting real grantees in London and my home county of Dorset did I fully appreciate the essential work of grant makers in ensuring the continued existence of local charities, who are often the only link to those most marginalised in society. Paradoxically, it is the most ostracised groups, concerning the most stigmatic issues like sex-work and offending, that struggle to gain recognition and support from mainstream society; it is here the Foundation and its committed staff step in to provide much needed assistance.

I will take so much more away from these ten weeks than I ever thought; the tangible impact of the Foundation on communities across England and Wales was something I knew hopelessly little about before starting this experience. The relationship between large corporates and the third sector can seem mismatched at times, but by committing funding to the Foundation, Lloyds Banking Group is not only strengthening its Helping Britain Prosper Plan, but also allowing this indispensable organisation to fulfil its promise of Breaking Disadvantage, Bettering Lives.

Emily Rigler-Gillingham, 1st Year Law student, University of Bristol

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A cross-sector partnership 

Ask many Lloyds Bank colleagues and they may well not know the Lloyds Bank Foundation exists. And yet – if you listen closely – you will hear moving stories about schemes scattered across England and Wales where the two organisations work in close partnership to deliver priceless work in communities.

mentorTheir Charity Mentoring Programme is one scheme to take inspiration from. Bank staff are matched to Foundation funded charities and, using their expertise in areas such as strategy and business development, they help support the charity to become stronger and more sustainable, not to mention improving the bank colleague’s own skills. This mutual endeavour tackles the Foundation’s long-term mission of Breaking Disadvantage; Bettering Lives while simultaneously furthering Lloyds Banking Group’s (LBG) commitment to Helping Britain Prosper. Both organisations – despite representing different sectors – share the same ultimate goal, so working together makes perfect sense.

And just think how much more the two could achieve with increased awareness of the Foundation among the Bank’s 75,000 employees. Possibilities are endless – imagine, for instance, if the 260,000 hours of volunteering bank colleagues gave last year were used to support small to medium charities that work to break multiple disadvantage. Or envisage the domino effect of a collaborative piece of work between the Foundation and the Bank’s Responsible Business Division showing fiscal benefits of assisting ‘vulnerable’ customers to gain from bank profits. The Foundation’s expertise and knowledge, coupled with the Bank’s well-known brand and presence could help to raise awareness about key issues the Foundation supports that are sure to affect the Bank’s customers – from homelessness, to domestic abuse, from addiction, to isolation.

Impact Report 2016

While the Bank can be found on almost every high street, the Foundation supports work on almost every backstreet. It seems to me that a bigger and better partnership could increase impact 10-fold. Could it be that in our wariness not to blur the lines between business and charity we are all missing out on creating even more positive change? Agreed, a healthy independent balance must remain, but combining unique expertise that sit on both sides can make powerful things happen, as seen through the Charity Mentoring Programme. So, what will I take with me into my next role in the bank as a Lloyds Scholar? Well first and foremost it would be the Foundation’s URL and a copy of the 2016 Impact Report – I think this secret is too well kept.

Emma Evans, 1st Year International Relations and Politics student, University of Sheffield

Small sex-worker charity breaks taboos

Luton-based Azalea is one of those organisations that show the small local charity model at its best, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets in his latest column for Third Sector.

This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 31st July 2017.

Small charities often come into their own when breaking taboos. Let’s take the very taboo subject of sex workers as an example. It’s one of the toughest and often overlooked issues, where local charities are often the only means of reaching these most vulnerable of women.

Over the years, I’ve visited or spoken with many charities we fund that work with sex workers. Meeting them can be deeply affecting, especially for those of us a long way from this sharpest of front lines.

I recently visited Azalea in Luton, which was founded in 2007 by its chief executive, Ruth Robb. Azalea has just relocated to an old hat factory near the centre of town after the youth organisation who were previously in the space moved on.

Azalea

 

Azalea, like the flower it’s named after, is wonderfully bright and fragrant. There are lilies on the reception and it smells of fresh paint. Robb tells me what lies behind the design. It’s being decorated and furnished to look like a home rather than an institution, an important perception for the women the charity supports. The room where therapeutic work takes place is warm and comfortable. The women sit where they can always see the door so have their escape route in view – a powerful metaphor for lives that are trapped.

Next door there’s a nice shower and a rack of clothes. Many of the women Azalea works with are on the streets or sofa surfing and have very little. There’s also a cupboard full of free toiletries and food that can be eaten cold or microwaved, because most of the women it works with don’t live in homes with ovens.

Robb explains that sex work in Luton is currently worse than that she encountered in Kings Cross, London, when it was the sex work and HIV centre of London.

I ask her what she means by “worse”? She says she means price. One of the women charges £7 – or a packet of 20 cigarettes – for full sex without a condom. Think about that for a moment.

The 82 women supported by Azalea are sisters, partners, mothers. In one case, a grandmother.

That’s because sex work is largely intergenerational. One of the women was groomed by her mother, the same mother who is now looking after her children while she works. It’s the only thing they know. Almost all are drug users. Most are under 40 and some are between 16 and 18 years old.

The majority have at some point been through the care system. It’s a sad indictment of society’s  approach to supporting vulnerable families and “looked-after” children.

It’s hard not to be affected by the dedication and commitment of people like Robb who run small charities. Often self-deprecating, they are truly the saints of the voluntary sector.

It’s hard not to be affected by the dedication and commitment of people like Robb who run small charities.

Supporting sex workers is one of the cause areas where the small local charity model is at its most effective because street sex workers have a deep distrust of anything that smacks of institution or authority.

The nights that Azalea opens its doors, the charity is staffed by volunteers. This is a deliberate move: it helps to create trust and make it clear that this is not a place where “officials” work, because that would prevent vulnerable women from approaching them for help.

tunnel light

Street sex working is surely a tragedy of our times. But thankfully, and despite all the challenges and struggles they face, small charities are still with us,  providing some light at the end of the tunnel.

The experience the charity has developed over the years means it is now ready to take its work forward, applying what it has learnt to new ways of working. It’s an innovation that comes through specialism, expertise and a deep-rooted knowledge of the women and communities it supports.

It’s a fantastic example of small and local at its innovative best and sometimes a story is the best way to show how and why that is.

The Queen’s speech wasn’t all bad news

The new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill has the potential to save lives says our Chief Executive Paul Streets. A version of this blog was first published on Third Sector on 4 July 2017. 

speechThe Government recently voted on the Queen’s Speech including the new Domestic Violence and Abuse Bill – one of the few pieces of legislation outside of Brexit to make it onto the statute book.

It’s been interesting hearing the response to this Queen’s speech. “Empty, tired or weak” are just some of the terms commentators have used. It makes me wonder what words people affected by Domestic Abuse would use to describe a Bill designed to save lives.

Let’s not forget that two women are killed by their partner or ex-partner every week in England and Wales.

Apart from the impact on lives it has a massive impact on our hospital, Police, court and benefit systems and, as our colleagues at Lloyds Banking Group know all too well, it destroys financial health and drives people into debt.

The movement fighting domestic abuse is an embodiment of the immense power of voluntary action. Starting with the first refuge in Chiswick in 1971 and now encompasses hundreds of small, local charities as well as the larger representative bodies such as Women’s Aid and Safe Lives.

As a Foundation, we’ve been funding charities supporting women on the frontline since we were founded and while it’s still one of the areas we invest in the most, we’ve grown and evolved our approach.

In 2016, we became the lead philanthropic funder of Drive, a pioneering programme that works with perpetrators of abuse to tackle their behaviour. It’s astonishing that there is still controversy around getting people to ask “Why doesn’t he stop?” instead of “why doesn’t she leave?”

An important development but we must recognise that it is still small, local charities that provide the lion’s share of support to victims and survivors.

Trust

And rightly so. This is an issue that requires a high degree of trust, understanding and specialist knowledge.

Much of our grant making has therefore been targeted at core service provision for these charities but we know there is more they want to do and more we as a funder need to do to  improve the environment that affects how these charities work.

That’s why we developed Transform. A one-off grants programme, we invited bids from charities and partnerships wishing to influence policy, build the evidence base, develop models which can be grown and replicated, or create collaborative partnership models to tackle abuse and violence.

We had a terrific response demonstrating the range of innovation and partnership working across the sector and recently announced the 17 diverse projects we have chosen to fund.

From tackling domestic abuse of disabled people to improving the response to those in LGBT relationships. Because this stuff matters. 16% of disabled women and 8% of disabled men experience domestic abuse and most mainstream support doesn’t work for people in LGBT relationships.

And whilst domestic abuse increasingly receives public and political attention the greater unspoken taboo is sexual violence – perpetrated by people who the victim doesn’t know.

Small local charities are often the only major source of support for people experiencing sexual violence and we’re therefore also supporting some important collaborations in this space.

One in Manchester that is researching the needs of female survivors of sexual violence and exploitation with an aim of developing a model that reaches across Greater Manchester. And whilst women are the most frequent victims: 16% are men so another project is looking to improve how organisations support male victims.

Our overall aim is to influence responses to domestic and sexual abuse and strengthen the sector which supports it. It’s a huge issue. Affecting more than twice as many people as the 2 million that Cancer Research UK estimate have survived cancer.  And yet it is not a ‘popular’ cause. Cancer charities have 30 times the combined incomes of those working on domestic abuse.

There are other funders investing in this space but even together we can’t make up the shortfall between demand and their income and it’s an area where the state, and state funding – both local and national – will always be critical.

Thankful

We should therefore be thankful to the thousands of small local organisations that are working with people in their local communities.

We hope, through Transform we can begin to find new and effective ways to reach individuals and families who need support. And as the new Bill makes its way through parliament, I hope we never hear the words weak or empty used to describe society’s attempt to tackle these destructive issues.

Paul Streets is the Chief Executive of Lloyds Bank Foundation for England and Wales. Tell him what you think @PaulStreets_

What to do when your grant application isn’t successful

Harriet Stranks, Director of Grant making North and Wales explains what to do when your funding application hasn’t been successful. Our latest round of Invest applications has now closed.

Over the coming weeks, our Grant Managers will be busy, reviewing and assessing all the applications we’ve received. Some will pass through to the next stage which involves a site visit from their local Grant Manager so we can take the time to properly understand their funding needs and how a grant from us might help. Others might not even get to this stage and they will be informed that their request for funds has not been successful.

letterWhen we do reject funding applications, we send a personalised letter giving concrete reasons why the charity was not successful. Our Chief Executive Paul takes the time to sign all of these letters and often encourages charities to try again. Of course, it’s much more enjoyable to write letters telling charities they have been successful, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less important writing those that aren’t.

Our letters encourage charities to contact their grant manager to discuss this feedback but it’s surprising how many charities do not take up this offer.

feedbackAsking for feedback can of course be an uncomfortable experience. We worry about what we will be told and that’s probably why around 95% of our applicants who aren’t successful don’t ask why they didn’t get funded. We know charities spend hours making an application but then don’t take the final step to understand why it wasn’t successful.

At the Foundation, we want to build long-term, constructive relationships with the charities we fund and constructive feedback is a critical part of our approach. Every two years, we take part in a bench-marking exercise against other funders. Conducted by nfp Synergy, they carry out an anonymous survey to find out what people say about us. (We do it this way because it is virtually impossible for funders to get honest feedback from applicants, particularly when money is involved). It’s easy to become complacent if you don’t have external validation and that’s why this is such an important exercise for us.

At the Foundation, we want to build long-term, constructive relationships with the charities we fund and constructive feedback is a critical part of our approach

One of the main points we learned from the nfp synergy survey was that we as a Foundation needed to get better at providing feedback to the charities who have applied to us for funds. Whilst many charities said they received feedback from us, some said it wasn’t useful. Getting feedback on your feedback is surely the worst type of feedback to get! But if the feedback isn’t useful, it’s effectively a waste of everyone’s time.

Giving challenging feedback is never easy, and some people are notoriously bad at doing so. It’s why many people fall into the trap of superficial comments such as ‘there was a lot of competition out there’ because it’s easier than having a deep and meaningful conversation.

Of course, feedback is subjective. Sometimes the person on the receiving end doesn’t agree with the perspective of the other person. Sometimes people feel criticised, especially knowing that they may have to share this information with their board or superiors. In some ways feedback is as hard to give as it is to receive.

That’s why we take the time to give such a personalised response. Charities invest time and energy in their applications, we have to respect them by doing the same in our response. Our grant managers visit and speak to hundreds of charities every year. They are skilled at what they do, can benchmark charities against each other and know what good looks like.  Their judgement and experience means that they can understand what they are looking at, can ask the right questions, signpost to others when appropriate and suggest new ways of solving problems. To us, they are much more than grant assessors, they are coaches, critical friends, allies and sounding boards all rolled into one.

Charities invest time and energy in their applications, we have to respect them by doing the same in our response

We know that a robust feedback loop can improve a charity’s service, target resources more effectively, create stronger relationships and ultimately stronger organisations. It’s why we encourage our grantees to seek and act on feedback from the people they support.

So, if you aren’t successful in this latest round, don’t be disheartened. Our feedback is well considered and well-intended and we hope it helps you become more successful in future applications. Not just with us, but other funders too. And remember whilst it’s good to reflect on and act on it, it’s equally important to retain your own perspective and not obsess –  and above all, don’t take it personally.

don't give up.jpg

Understanding the true value of small charities

The job of a funding organisation is to improve people’s lives, not prop up inefficiency, writes our Chief Executive Paul Streets. This blog was originally published on Third Sector on 23rd May 2017.

I’ve just come back from an energising visit to two Newcastle charities that support refugees and asylum seekers, the North of England Refugee Service and the Action Foundation, both funded by us. Both charities support new arrivals as they are welcomed into our “sharing society”.

action foundation

Generally this means putting them through an undignified process (no doubt reminding them why they left their homes in the first place) by dispersing them – usually outside the home counties – and then, after their applications have been considered, giving them 28 days to get out of government accommodation into the private rented sector.

Faced with unrelenting challenges, these charities do a great, but difficult job, providing advice and support at the point of entry and offering educational support and decent housing after the state has processed their claims and effectively abdicated its responsibility. One Iranian supported by NERS told me: “This was the only place I’ve been that sorted out my immigration and housing issues. At other places I was just given a cup of tea.”

It’s difficult not to be moved by the powerful difference small and local charities – which most people have never heard of – make to people’s lives.

I often get accused of being a “small charity evangelist”, and it’s true that, in meeting hundreds of small charities and seeing their work in action, I’ve experienced my own damascene conversion and tend to proselytise about their unique ability to touch lives.

But as a foundation we invest a significant amount of money in small charities in the belief that they are best placed to have a positive impact on people’s lives locally. So it’s important that we remain objective and we continuously need to check our approach and focus are still on the right track.

It’s important that we remain objective and we continuously need to check our approach and focus are still on the right track.

Over the past three years we’ve started a journey to unravel these issues.navigating change

First through Navigating Change, a report based on research commissioned from the National Council for Voluntary Organisations that showed smallcharities are under the cosh, with funding collapsing as the state withdraws and shifts from grants to contracts and from small specialist providers to large generic provision.

Second, through demonstrating exactly why this is a problem to the survival of small charities in our Commissioning in Crisis report, which showed the shift Commissioning in Crisis front pageto commissioning is exacerbating the problem. Acutely.

Finally, we recognisfacing forwarde that small charities should be Facing Forward to meet the hurricane of social, political and economic changes heading their way.

But these have all focused on the charities themselves and, ultimately, why should we give a jot about them

No charity has a right to exist unless it is making a difference.

There are some who’d see the research above as a demonstration of straightforward economies of scale and efficiency to achieve more standardised outcomes; and there are others who would claim there are too many charities and only the fittest should survive.

Intuitively, there are many reasons why small local organisations make sense. They engage local people, adding to social cohesion and understanding. And because they’re local, they usually leverage high levels of volunteering that provide good value for money. They’re a magnet for money from outside that would otherwise be spent elsewhere. And money invested in local organisations usually stays local, so it creates local economic multipliers.

But the litmus test is this: does it matter for the people on the receiving end?

We think we know the answer, but do we?

Last year we went out to tender for independent external research to understand what the true value of small and local charities is, both socially and economically; research that would ask whether other organisations could do the same or better more effectively, whether the direction public service commissioners have taken (large contracts and large providers) is actually cost-effective and whether the large providers, such as Serco, G4S and large charities, that move into this space can deliver the same quality of provision.

The Centre for Regional Economic and Social Research at Sheffield Hallam University will be leading the research in partnership with the Open University Business School, the Institute for Voluntary Action and Sheffield Business School, and we’re eagerly expecting early findings next year.

Our mission is to “break disadvantage and better lives”, not prop up inefficiency. If we find we’ve got it wrong, we will have to change our approach, and I’ll be looking for a new messiah on my return from Damascus.