When does a funder’s involvement with a charity, beyond the grant it provides, become ‘meddling’? How can a funder provide extra support and advice in addition to money without being seen as interfering unnecessarily?

These questions were discussed at a seminar for funders we held this week to mark the launch of our report, Helping grantees focus on impact. The report looks at how funders can support their grantees to monitor and evaluate their work, and how they can make their support as effective as possible.

More and more grant-makers are becoming interested in high-engagement funding, sometimes known as ‘funder plus’. They are keen to provide their grantees with more than just money, offering extra support to help organisations become more effective. But a report by the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) found that, despite funders’ good intentions, much of this extra support fails to have an impact on the organisations it is designed to help. There’s a danger in these cases that funders may be hindering rather than helping.

Our research suggests that grant-makers are more likely to provide effective support if they think through their approach and ensure it is well structured. The CEP report agrees: it found that support was likely to be less effective where it was provided casually, without clear aims.

So what is the best way to do this? We believe an important first step is diagnosing grantees’ needs—this means working out whether they have the capacity and skills for evaluation,,and identifying gaps. Funders can then tailor their support to suit grantees, and can be confident they are meeting a real need, rather than offering the help they think charities should want.

Diagnosing grantees’ needs also helps funders to check whether their support is working. The CEP report found that only a third of US foundations always follow up with grantees to check their help has been of use. Getting feedback provides an opportunity to tweak or change their support so that it better meets grantee needs.

There are diagnosis tools out there for funders to use. Evaluation Support Scotland, for example, has developed Evaluation Declaration Health Check Tool for the Scotland Funders’ Forum, which includes resources for carrying out diagnosis on grantees. Tools like these should be applied as a matter of routine but at the moment few funders are using them.

Diagnosis is part of a wider need for funders to engage with their grantees and establishing meaningful dialogue. Research and experience tell us that funders who talk to their grantees about what both parties want to get out of support, and what they both judge grantee’s strengths and challenges to be, are much more likely to have a relationship that’s valuable to both beyond solely financial assistance.

More diagnosis, as part of more meaningful dialogue, could mean that more funders find themselves helping rather than hindering.

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