Learning matters

By Guest contributor 22 July 2013

Lisa Suchet has been Chief Executive of the Nationwide Foundation since February 2006. During this time the Foundation has been recognised with awards for its grant-making.  Lisa is currently a Trustee of the Yapp Charitable Trust, a member of BIG’s Improving Financial Confidence grant programme advisory group, and was  a trustee  of the Association of Charitable Foundations (ACF) from 2006-12.

Between 2009-2013, the Nationwide Foundation ran a funding strategy called Money Matters, Homes Matter and Families Matter. The programme offered three year grants to nine charities working with disadvantaged groups to help tackle housing and homelessness issues, and financial exclusion. An independent evaluation of our funding strategy, published earlier this month, found much to applaud. Evidence showed that £3 million was raised by charities in extra grants, benefits and debt reductions for beneficiaries – around the same amount we donated in grant funding.  However, for the purposes of this blog, I am going to scrutinise the shortcomings of our work to offer our learning to other funders.

In their initial bid for funding, grantees were asked to identify their outputs and outcomes, the definitions of which caused some confusion. As a hands-on funder, we helped grantees to refine their outputs and outcomes during quarterly site visits and through regular phone contact, and we also offered additional, specific outcomes training. But these activities mainly provided support in the early stages; we did not go far enough and it is an area we need to focus on more in future.

Collectively, the grantees identified about 70 different outcomes, ranging from greater confidence and reduced anxiety, to better reporting by the media, increased awareness by the general public and a deeper understanding by policy makers. Some were simply not measurable, and for many that were, we wrongly assumed that charities had or knew how to obtain baseline data in order to measure their results. Where grantees were seeking to influence or raise awareness, they often struggled to articulate the change they wanted to happen as a result. For example, some suggested measuring the number of people at an event rather than what those attendees would do differently as a result of attending that event. Explaining the importance of linking outputs and outcomes was also a challenge; in some cases, the outputs would never have led to a particular outcome.

Overall, it became apparent that we needed to define our own strategic funding outcomes more clearly. By doing so, we would collect far fewer than 70 outcomes and our task of measuring the programme’s achievements would become much easier.

We were keen to learn from our mistakes whilst developing our new strategy. To this end, we have now adopted a theory of change approach, which involved setting ourselves new outcomes, with outputs and indicators of success mapped out.  As a result, we’ve been able to integrate this strategy far more effectively than before into our communications, as well as staff performance, plans. New funding recipients must have clear project strategies that work towards our outcomes, with the means to measure progress towards them. Even at the initial funding enquiry stage, it is now much easier for organisations to recognise if they are eligible for funding and for us to identify which projects we should fund.