food bank worker

Rethinking grant-making

The role of trust in philanthropy; now and in the difficult times ahead

By Clare Wilkins 18 December 2020

Coronavirus is a systemic change that demands a systemic response. Our Rethink, Rebuild initiative envisages a more resilient, more equitable, more progressive future for our sector. In this blog, Clare Wilkins sets out how we can rethink grant-making.

We all know the charity sector is going through a hard time. We can also predict that things are only going to get tougher—we expect need to grow, there to be less money available and many charities to have diminished reserves after digging into them to survive.

On top of this, we expect charities will have limited capacity for collaboration, knowledge sharing and big picture planning, as they focus on meeting the immediate needs of the people they are working to help.

All these issues make it vitally important that charities are supported in the best possible ways—giving them freedom to plan for the future, pursue best practice, help people when and where they need it, and retain skilled staff. With things so difficult at societal level, grant-makers seeking to make the greatest possible impact need to support charities in the right places, at the right times, and with the right terms.

We can learn about the right places and the right issues by using tools like NPC’s data dashboard. Finding effective charities is made easier by using our What Makes A Good Charity? guide. Identifying the right times is also not difficult—charities need support now, and solid commitments for the years ahead. But what about the right terms?


Grant-making best practice

We have built an understanding of the best grant-making terms based on our experience of the sector and what charities tell us. The principles always circle around the same ideas:

  • Unrestricted multi-year funding
  • Reasonable application and reporting requirements
  • Balanced power dynamics

But we haven’t actually tested any of these principles in the new Covid-19 world. Nor have we had a chance to identify whether there are any new grant-making models that should be rolled out more frequently, such as bridging loans or sharing of assets like office space.

As part of our ‘Rethink Grant-making’ work, we want to talk with charities and hear what they most need, what support has been the most helpful over the last year, and under what circumstances they most need particular types of assistance. We want to learn about their fundraising and stewardship activities, to understand where the sweet spot is in the balance between resource dedication and good funder engagement.

We also want to talk with grant-makers to hear how they have responded to Covid-19, what they have been asked to do by charities, what engagement activities they commend from grantees, and what lessons they have learned about their own grant-making. We want to talk with those who have given beyond grants, to hear how they have used their assets or explored more innovative funding models.


Emerging models of philanthropy

Using the insights gained from these discussions, we want to build a clear framework for how grant-makers and charities can best engage each other now and in the difficult times ahead. To help with this, we will explore emerging models of philanthropy from the US, such as trust-based philanthropy and systems change philanthropy. We want to see how these models work, who is using them, where they echo the feedback we receive, and what opportunities they present for UK-based grant-making cultures and systems.

We will be holding exploratory sessions early in 2021 with charities and with grant-makers, to learn about their experiences and listen to their suggestions. We would love to hear directly from anyone interested in being involved with this work—if you are open to joining a discussion, please e-mail me at


Related items