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Beyond grant-making: sharing learning

By Cecilie Hestbaek 6 October 2015

At NPC, we often talk about what good grant-making means, but being a ‘good funder‘ is often about more than providing grants. Some funders dedicate resources to achieving impact in other ways, and understanding the role and power that comes with being a funder is the fundamental first step in doing this successfully. One key area of value is the cross-cutting knowledge that funders gain from monitoring a wide portfolio of grants. While funders often don’t have the front-line experience of delivering services, or know every detail of the work, they are able to compare the results of a number of similar organisations and spot trends in a way that an individual charity would be unable to.

Some funders use this advantage to provide ‘funder plus’ support. Impetus-PEF, for example, offers an extensive programme of management support for the charities it funds and can draw on the experience of working with a large number of charities in the same field to share learning. The challenge of  ‘funder plus’ support, however, is that it’s crucial that the funder acts carefully and responsibly in managing the power relationships between itself and its grantee, so the help doesn’t become unwelcome meddling.

A different, and for grantees more ‘opt-in’, way in which funders can use their unique perspective to help is by making use of their potential as conveners in the sector. Events or networks hosted by funders tend to be well-attended, but the crucial test is whether the funder is able to encourage, instead of punish, discussion of failure and learning.

At NPC we work closely with The Stone Family Foundation (SFF), a UK charitable trust committed to sharing learning with grantees, other funders and the sector more widely. SFF has a large funding portfolio in water and sanitation (WASH), and its approach is aligned around the belief that market-based solutions are the most sustainable. It’s not just about building pumps and latrines, but about creating a sector infrastructure that ensures the pumps are repaired and the latrines are emptied. Tackling this challenge is far from easy, and SFF has increasingly realised that with the experience and networks built from funding almost 20 organisations over the past five years, it can offer its grantees more than just money to find lasting solutions.

The Foundation held its first knowledge sharing event at the recent WEDC conference in Loughborough, gathering three of its grantees to discuss the topic of setting up pit-emptying businesses in East Africa. While this may seem like a specific issue with little interest to the wider sector, the discussions brought out a number of general challenges and lessons for market-based approaches, applicable to any situation in which NGOs attempt to build sustainable solutions. The main themes included accessing appropriate finance, generating and managing demand, engaging with government, pricing and the role of technology.

SFF has published a paper to share the learning further and this indicates that the charities in the room were not afraid of talking about failure: the panellists explained how they have often fundamentally changed their planned approach to get the desired results. Open discussions like this enable WASH organisations and funders themselves to learn from past mistakes and develop effective solutions much quicker—and are a good example of how funders can leverage their unique role in the voluntary sector beyond just handing out cash.