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If you don’t know, ask: How to decide what to fund

By Douglas Hamilton 23 May 2016

Today, NPC published reports on two of our funding focuses: child abuse, and visual impairment. The reports serve as guides for any funder looking to make an impact on these issues in Scotland. Here, I wanted to share why we at RS Macdonald commissioned this research, and some of the insights we have gained as a result:

Good funders don’t assume they know it all

Whenever I introduce the RS Macdonald Charitable Trust I tend to highlight the fact that we do not pretend to be the experts in any of the thematic areas that we fund in. I firmly believe that the charities that we support have the expertise, and that we best serve the ultimate beneficiaries by listening to those who are closest to the coal face.

Our purpose in commissioning NPC to produce a report on two of our funding themes was to listen to the voices of the charity sector. We wanted to capture some of that expertise so that we can make better decisions about where our grants are awarded.

The reports are not there to provide a comprehensive overview on the state of these sectors, but are intended to make a contribution to current thinking and discussions about funding gaps and potential opportunities. We are also keen to provoke a response: by setting out some questions on current priorities for charities, funders and the public sector, we hope to start a conversation.

Consulting the sector can challenge our thinking

One big question that emerges in the report on tackling child abuse is about how seriously attempts are being made to shift funding towards preventative services. Despite a lot of noise about the importance of prevention, there seems to be a reluctance from the state to fund that type of work. And there is also the challenge of knowing which preventative services are the most effective. There certainly seems to be a role for independent funders to fill this space and make more of a contribution—but will that be enough?

Another challenge to our thinking is set out in the visual impairment report. Although we know that older people are most likely to be affected by sight loss, does that mean that most of our funding should go towards that age group? There is a danger that the loud voice of one group of people could drown out the needs of other groups. Perhaps greater impact can be achieved if independent funders are able to identify some of the specialist needs that are neglected by others.

Collaboration can help solve huge problems

We were not looking to find common issues across the funding themes, but the issue of competition versus collaboration within the charitable sector was raised in both reports. Shrinking local authority budgets and state retrenchment mean the charity sector should seek opportunities to lessen duplication and achieve more effective joint working.

Both reports highlight the dominance of several large charities that are better placed to speak on behalf of the sector as a whole. Yet this also raises questions: are the views of the smaller charities getting heard? and is enough attention being given to their particular contribution to the overall picture of service provision?

The voices of beneficiaries must be heard

Speaking of voices, it is also encouraging that both reports highlight the need for service users to be influencing the design and delivery of services.

The ten ‘Seeing it My Way’ outcomes that are referenced in the visual impairment report provide an excellent framework for considering service priorities from the perspective of those who use them. Similarly, the child abuse report sets out children’s priorities for the child protection system, including the key message of ‘help us be safe’. Involvement of beneficiaries and their families and carers will help create better responses from charities, and will also lead to better decisions by funders.

We must share ideas and keep up a dialogue

One of the aims of the RS Macdonald Trust over the last two years has been to enable the sharing of good ideas. These two reports provide a vehicle for doing just that. But that is only the start of the process for us. Over the coming months we will use the reports as a prompt for group discussions and further conversations with beneficiary charities and other interested people.

Let us know what you think of the reports over on Twitter: @rsmacdonaldct

Update: Since the writing of this blog, NPC have worked with RS Macdonald on a further two reports, one on animal welfare and another on neurological conditions.